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The Unseen City

By Joan Killough-Miller

In his haunting photographs, Kirk Jalbert '97 shows us a Worcester we seldom see. Through his artistry, we take in the beauty of the city in the dark recesses of night, and search for answers amid the discarded remains of our lives.

An upended wheelchair rests on a hillside, weeds growing between the spokes. A heap of books slowly decomposes into dust. Who left behind the books? Where is the wheelchair's owner? These unresolved stories, about nameless, absent people, are the subject of Kirk Jalbert's photographs.

After earning a computer science degree at WPI in 1997, Jalbert began to explore the unseen corners of Worcester with his large format camera. His haunting black-and-white images do not editorialize about development or urban decay, nor do they pit the manmade environment against the beauty of nature. His goal is to render the "everyday landscape" that can be seen when we drop our preconceptions.

"Worcester by Night," his show two years ago in WPI's Gordon Library, revealed a realm of surprising beauty, full of light and motion. Captured through long exposures (up to an hour for a single photograph), familiar landmarks took on a surreal quality: trees in Elm Park shrouded in luminous fog (above); neon-lit storefronts ablaze in a sea of darkness.

"I was trying to encourage people to change their opinion of what it means to be out at night in the city--to become more comfortable and realize that it's beautiful," says Jalbert.

If "Worcester by Night" celebrated a city few are brave enough to witness, Jalbert's most recent show, "Urban Remains," zeros in on things we don't take the time to see. The focus is the relationship between the city's landscape and its inhabitants, as evidenced by places "void of their presence yet marked by their passing."

Like an urban archeologist, Jalbert searches for answers in the detritus of abandoned buildings and trash heaps, and in graffiti, which he says is the ultimate example of learning about people based on what they leave behind. "You're on the trail of an unknown person, looking at their wake and trying to figure out who they are."

Jalbert took his first photography course at the Worcester Center for Crafts in 1997 as a diversion, while recovering from months of hospitalization and illness. "It was like a door opened, and all of a sudden my creative energies came pouring out," he says, in his quiet baritone voice. "It was almost like therapy."

Today, he teaches photography at Clark University (he also teaches at the craft center and has taught at Atlantic Union College) and sees the same catharsis in students facing difficult family or personal issues. "They pour themselves into their work, because it's the only thing they do where they feel like they have complete control."

At WPI, Jalbert took every art history class the university offered, though he had no idea of how he would use them. After graduation, he wrote software for computer and pharmaceutical companies, but was disappointed because the work didn't have the creative element he'd hoped for. "Don't get me wrong," he says. "At WPI, I knew people who could make code float on air. They were really artists with what they were doing. But it wasn't my art.

"The whole logical thinking process stressed at WPI is completely applicable to everything I do," he continues. "Photography is a technical art. It's really like one big equation. I have to worry about the concentrations of my solutions and the life spans of my chemicals. I have to know something about the science of optics and how film works. When you can really understand that, I think, you have the ability to use your equipment to a higher level."

For now, Jalbert is firmly rooted in Worcester, energized by its lively arts community and fascinated by its varied landscapes. ( He's also pursuing a master of fine arts degree at the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston.) To those who wonder why he doesn't go after more exotic or pristine settings, he responds, "I don't live in the woods. I live in a city. I photograph the things I encounter on a daily basis.

"There are beautiful and ugly parts of anywhere," he contends. "I've always felt that you can spend a lifetime photographing things that are within an hour of your house and not run out of material."

Related Links

All photos © Kirk Jalbert. To see more photos and order prints, visit www.kirkjalbert.com.

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Last modified: Sep 15, 2004, 12:38 EDT
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