Photographer Tad Malek knows a bit about patience. With a background in color landscape photography, Malek has spent full days immersed in natural surroundings, waiting for the perfect still. Malek’s current exhibition, “People at Work and Other Environmental Portraits,” on view at Springfield Museums, marks a departure from the restraint of waiting for that consummate shot into the realm of portraiture in the moment, with all its alluring fallibility and epiphanic fulfillment.
Choosing almost exclusively black-and-white images for “People at Work and Other Environmental Portraits,” Malek has deliberately shifted media to capture the rich textures and nuanced variations within each piece. Sharp exposure delineates the finest detail, whether it be the lines along the walkway of the “Brooklyn Bridge Lady in the Shade,” 2008; the sculpted musculature of a male bather in “Rio de Janeiro The Guy from Ipanema,” 2011; or the thick gray whiskers of a concerned-looking hot air balloon pilot, taken in flight, “Free from the Bonds of Earth,” 2018.
“Although I rely on my landscape photography experience to aid in portrait composition, for those candid people photographs where my anonymity is vital, I am guided mostly by instinct when the decisive moment of exposure occurs,” Malek shared in recent correspondence. “I usually have only seconds to compose and shoot, without the luxury of time, to consider. I often make only one exposure in order to minimize any interaction with my subject.”
Malek comes by his finely crafted sense of composition through heredity as well as acumen. His maternal grandfather was American modernist painter Charles Philip Kuntz (1897-1928), who worked in Paul Cézanne’s atelier before his untimely passing in a motorcycle accident in the south of France. He left a wife and young daughter, Malek’s mother.
Malek recently shared his primary influences in documenting “People at Work.” “Dorothea Lange and Vivian Maier successfully captured the soulfulness and humanity of the uncelebrated, and, in Lange’s case, the downtrodden ordinary people of their times,” Malek said. “Two photographs by Dorothea Lange, in particular, made a strong impression on me: ‘White Angel Breadline’ and ‘Migrant Mother’. Both were taken in the Great Depression and have become iconic photographs.”
While Malek’s almost visceral connection with his human subjects remains the focus of “People at Work and Other Environmental Portraits,” there are echoes of ornamental design in each setting and contextual structure. “Breakman,” 2010, frames its central figure with a circular wrought iron grille, in counterpoint against the round embroidered insignia on the San Francisco cable car operator’s jacket.
“Vanna,” 2018, features the entrancing image of Malek’s Cambodian-American neighbor selling asparagus at Alligator Brook Farm. In the background, a print of the farm owner’s father serving in the Navy during World War II adds poignancy to the implied storyline. The farm stand’s ceiling appears to be sinking, and a rubber alligator tucked between the rafters peers down nonsensically at the viewer. This multifaceted presentation of humor and pathos; realism and adornment provides dramatic tension throughout Malek’s work.
Malek’s process is deliberate and meticulously applied. “Once a potentially print-worthy exposure is made, I begin to visualize a proof by mentally cropping out all unessential elements,” Malek explained. “I believe in the maxim ‘that which doesn’t help the photograph hurts it.’ It is a subtractive process. This effort ends prior to printing, when I have corner to corner, and edge to edge compositional elements in position to maximize the viewer’s experience. By resolving all the small details, my hope is to confine the viewer’s eyes within the frame.”
“The next step in the process is balancing the levels, or tonalities, on a monitor. This involves tweaking shadows, highlights and midtones, first on my subject, followed by all the secondary elements which comprise the environment. The final step is choosing the print size,” Malek continued. “My paper of choice is Canson Baryta Photographique for its rich tones across the tonal spectrum, its low gloss finish and micro-texture. All these principles apply whether I am taking candid, or staged photos with the knowledge and cooperation of my subjects in their place of work.”
Maggie North, acting curator of art for the Springfield Museums, shared her enthusiasm for “People at Work.” “Tad Malek’s portraits are united by his keen eye and ability to capture fleeting moments, glances, expressions and exchanges that speak to the human experience. Additionally, Malek’s photographs draw the viewer in, hinting at a broader narrative that may have unfolded beyond the artist’s lens. Among my favorite photographs in the exhibition are ‘Gaspar’s Chickens #1’ and ‘Gaspar’s Chickens #2,’” North added.
“Depicting an RV turned chicken coop and its owner, ‘Gaspar’s Chickens #1’ provides a glimpse into one man’s daily life, occupation and character. ‘Gaspar’s Chickens #2’ provides some additional context, and its composition is visually stunning. The dark clouds gathering above and chickens moving towards the RV below add drama and mystery to the scene. United in these two works are the formal qualities and fascinating subjects that initially drew me to Malek’s work.”
“Tad Malek aims to capture ‘decisive moments’ in everyday life, and does so with great dexterity,” North concluded. “His work follows in the footsteps of great candid and street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliott Erwitt, Garry Winogrand and others. For admirers of Tad’s work, it’s a pleasure to see this artistic approach in action both in western Massachusetts and around the world.”
“People at Work and Other Environmental Portraits” is on view in the museum’s Community Gallery. As one of the few museums in the United States to offer a permanent gallery space to share the work of artists local to the area, Springfield Museums’ Community Gallery provides an opportunity for visitors to become familiar with established and emerging artists from the region, in a welcoming, vibrant environment.