Art People: Chester Michalik / Photographer

Last modified: Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Many photographers are drawn to natural landscapes: close-up looks at flora and fauna, sweeping outdoor vistas, or more focused portraits of woods, mountains, rivers and other features.

Chester Michalik likes cities — or more specifically, urban landscapes.

“I like the energy you find there, said Michalik, a retired Smith College professor of photography and design who lives in Holyoke. “There’s a sense of movement, of possibility, all kinds of activity ... it makes for a lot of different images.”

Yet he has a distinct way of looking at cities. His photos often display clear geometric patterns and straight lines, with a focus on a city’s architecture rather than people, particularly the more contemplative parts of the urban experience. It’s as though he’s seeking a sense of order and quiet amid the hustle and bustle of a typical city.

In fact, Michalik has spent considerable time in the last 20 years working in Japan, in particular in the cities of Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe, with a few trips to Tokyo. Japanese cities, he said, have a particular sense of order that appeals to him, and individual Japanese have been very accommodating when he’s asked if he can take their photograph.

“I really like the country,” said Michalik, who first visited Japan in 1991 on a fellowship and later taught photography to American college students there. “The people are very gracious, very helpful, and it’s the safest country in the world.”

Japanese cities also have some of the highest population densities in the world, but in Michalik’s hands, they can radiate serenity. One image, of two urban walkways with different-toned bricks, is built along clean, straight lines disappearing into the distance. To the side, low shrubs and a small tree bursting with cherry blossoms add a splash of color to a scene in which no people are visible.

In one of his many photos from Osaka, a huge skyscraper appears to float, white and ghost-like, in the center of an image that contains a background of blue sky above and green woods below. The building forces an instant double-take: Is it really there, or has it been superimposed?

In a recent show at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery, Michalik’s photographs, primarily from Japan, also seemed to burst with color. Though he once shot in black and white, he works exclusively in color these days.

Michalik photographs other cities; his portfolio includes studies of New York’s glamour, Holyoke’s grit and Las Vegas’ artificial dreamscapes. He looks for the contrasts and similarities between places, as well as the telling personal detail, like a portrait he took of a Japanese woman, made up like a geisha, on her wedding day. In the picture, she looks comically shocked, as though she’s having second thoughts on what she’s about to do.

“She was wonderful,” said Michalik, who was later invited to photograph the whole wedding party. “That’s the kind of thing that makes what I’m doing so satisfying.”

— Steve Pfarrer


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