What does our stuff say about us? Photographer takes a snapshot of Chicago culture

Oct 24, 2013

From the Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago
Credit Gary Cialdella

What if everyone left Kalamazoo for a day and historians walked the streets of downtown? What would our buildings, our signs, our décor say about us?

From 'The Calumet Region: An American Place'
Credit Gary Ciadella

Kalamazoo photographer Gary Cialdella has captured the lives of people in two very different neighborhoods near Chicago—the industrial Calumet Region and the Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood. Cialdella’s work has a way of talking about people without actually photographing people.

“As a photographer, you’re always looking for something to resonate with you," Cialdella says. "And that’s really what I’m doing, something that resonates with me, connects with my thinking and feelings about place.”

The Calumet Region in northwest Indiana curves around the southern part of Lake Michigan. Cialdella grew up here—where factories and refineries sit right next to their workers’ homes. And that’s exactly the kind of contrast you’ll find in his collection The Calumet Region: An American Place

Gary Ciadella at his studio in the Park Trades Center in Kalamazoo
Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

“You know, you think of industrial places and you think of grit and dirt, grime. But most of those old neighborhoods were very well taken care of. And the properties…everybody’s was just well kept up,” says Cialdella. “It’s not a simple matter of ‘Why would you ever live there?’ That was my opinion of it, ‘Why would you every live in this mess.’ Well, that’s where you grew up, that’s where you work, and that’s where your jobs are.”

In a way, Cialdella captures a part of American culture that we’ve tried to hide.

"If you look at it from the point of American history, this is nothing new," he says. "We just have moved away from those places. Most of the population lives in suburbs today or, of course, in the center city but they don’t see industry, it’s away.”

Cialdella shot the Calumet Region in black and white and tried to do the same for the Hispanic Pilsen neighborhood in Chicago.

"It was obvious before too long that this neighborhood demanded that you work in color, otherwise you’re missing it," Cialdella says. "Because it’s a colorful, vibrant place. It’s also gritty. It’s also an urban center, but you can’t look at that neighborhood and not see color.”

The photos of Pilsen are full of expressive murals; ornate churches and crosses. And Spanish text is everywhere. Cialdella says just walking in Pilsen can be throw you into visual overload.

“You look at one thing, you see it. Then the next thing you know, something else catches your eye. But they’re in your memory as juxtapositions," he says. "At least they’re in my memory as juxtapositions. So this was more rapidly occurring to me and I started feeling that some of the work just wasn’t working as a single photograph. Then I made some pairings of them and all of the sudden this all came together.”

In the 19th century, German and Irish immigrants lived in Pilsen. Later, they were replaced by Czech and Polish immigrants. Cialdella says the scenery in Pilsen is constantly moving, just like the settlers of the past.

“I walked to a part of town I hadn’t been in…a neighborhood I hadn’t been in in a while. There’s a new mural on the wall or new art on the wall. Something has changed," he says. "It's just…it’s an ever changing place in a sense. Yet it is that place, you know, it’s really rooted in that Latino tradition and particularly Mexican-American tradition.”

Cialdella describes a photo of a mural on the side of a tortilla factory in Pilsen:

“It’s interesting because it’s really telling you about maize and corn, and the whole Aztec connection to the Mexican culture. And the way in which that…the way corn has been part of it. How it’s ground, how it’s made into tortillas," he says. "Everything here in this mural is expressing something about the history of the people.”

You can see Gary Cialdella’s work at his studio in the Park Trades Center in Kalamazoo. You can also find The Calumet Region: An American Place at most local bookstores.