MERIDEN — Ray Gawlak hitchhiked on one of his first photo assignments.
1959, sophomore year at Southern Connecticut State. The Owls were playing football at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, North Carolina, and Gawlak was unable to secure a seat on the team’s charter flight.
So he hitchhiked to Baltimore and took a bus the rest of the way.
Gawlak reported a ride home with SCSU alumni, but it wasn’t easy. He had the bump seat in a Plymouth Fury for the 720 miles back to New Haven.
“I have never had so much pain in my life; I was in pain,” Gawlak recalled this week. “I think the president of the university mentioned it in the commencement speech.”
And with that began a career in photography that lasted a lifetime. Although his eponymous photo studio Meriden has been closed for fifteen years, Gawlak continues to photograph at 82 years old.
Over the next two weeks, Gallery 53, the Arts & Crafts Association of Meriden’s exhibition space at 53 Colony Street, will host a retrospective of Gawlak’s work – his portraits, travel photos, scenes, his sports shots.
Several photos are framed and mounted. Others are collected in albums. Still others will be part of a slideshow.
The opening reception is this Saturday, from noon to 2:30 p.m. The exhibition continues until August 19.
“There are probably close to 50 that are suspended, plus there are five or six albums,” Gawlak said. “Quite a variety of things. There are portraits, sports, panoramic photos, stuff like that.
“I’m very happy with how they went. They should look great on screen as well as hanging ones. I think people are going to be impressed with them, not to brag about.
There are photos that Gawlak took in Europe, New Zealand and Ecuador. There are pictures taken right here in town.
Maloney Football Spartans, take note: Gawlak was in your semifinal and state championship games last fall. Photos of the two are featured on the show.
Gawlak is sentenced to life in Meriden. He was in the last class of Meriden High in 1958. He and Janet, his 57-year-old wife, raised their two boys, Jason and Eric, in Meriden.
After teaching his first six years away from SCSU, Gawlak immersed himself in photography full-time in 1968 and opened his first studio on Colony Street, in the same building that Gallery 53 occupies today.
He was a downtown trader back when downtowns were downtowns, and moms and dads were pulling in the same direction. Its owner at 53 Colony, Jimmy Azzolina, had The Music Box on the first floor, and Gawlak’s studio was on the second. In the early years, during the occasional lean months, Azzolina was understanding with the rent.
Later, in another Colony Street location, Gawlak was just around the corner from Joe Grillo and Grillo’s Florist – perfect for all those wedding portraits.
“I was lucky,” Gawlak said. “I had nice people who helped me.”
Another avenue opened up when Carter White, the late Record-Journal editor, introduced Gawlak to Harry Dyer at the athletic department. It was the start of a long line of freelance work focused on local action, but with the fringe benefit of a pass to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore in the fall.
There, Gawlak obtained photos of Johnny Unitas, Fran Tarkenton and John Madden. He has another NFL photo – it’s on display – of Joe Namath leading the Jets against the Giants at the Yale Bowl.
The RJ used those shots along with all the local stuff Gawlak got.
“Harry was quite a character,” Gawlak said of the late Dyer. “He was very funny. He was really great with me.
Gawlak loved the challenge of sports photography, the freeze frame of fluid. Being an athlete in his youth lent himself to the work – knowing the plays, getting into the right position, anticipating where the action was and then, most crucial of all, capturing the peak moment.
“There is an expression in photography called ‘decisive moment’. I kind of applied that to my sports photography,” Gawlak explained. “I don’t use the engine. Some guys shoot it like it’s a movie. Tried to get it in 1-2 bursts. I felt like I got my best shots that way because there was something that made you take the shot. Something happened in front of you that forced you to take the picture.
“No one beats 1,000, but I was lucky, especially with the new equipment; it’s so quick to react,” added Gawlak. “When I started, we had manual focus lenses. Now it’s automatic. The new cameras are fantastic.
Indeed, the craft has come a long way since the time Gawlak, aged 12, first saw a footprint emerge from the trays and chemicals in a darkroom that one of his uncles had at home, away from his years working at university. in a studio in New Haven and a camera store in Meriden, far from hitchhiking and enduring the humpback seat of a Plymouth Fury.
“It was a great race,” said Gawlak. “I tell people I’m the age where you can leave anytime. 80, 81: We’re in the drop zone.
Gawlak laughs, then adds, “I have no regrets with my race. I think I had a great life taking photos, portraits and weddings. Absolutely no regrets.”