ST. PETERSBURG — Nicholas Pelak saw life best through the lens of his camera.
He grew up around his family’s photography studio and learned at a young age how to compose backgrounds and set lighting. That talent later led to him photographing bands at Jannus Landing and capturing moments for festivals like Earthdance International.
He had a gift for getting people to forget there was a camera in their face and the patience to wait until he saw a moment, a glimpse of expression, said sister Natasha Pelak.
“When the soul shows up in a photograph, that’s what makes it special,” she said. “My brother would allow a space for that.”
Pelak, 31 died at 4:30 p.m. Friday after he lost control of his Kia Sorrento on an entrance ramp to Interstate 275 in downtown St. Petersburg. He struck another car and was thrown from his vehicle. He was not wearing a seatbelt.
He had been on his way to bring a gift to a friend who had just gotten out of rehab, said Natasha Pelak, who described her brother as a renegade pirate type.
“He was always there for people,” she said. “He had a big energy, a big heart.”
Pelak grew up in Allentown and moved with his family to the Tampa Bay area in 2002. He attended Jefferson High School in Tampa. He studied digital photography at the International Academy of Design and Technology
He worked for Pelak Studios, his family’s photography business, and also got work snapping pictures of bands and festivals. He supplemented his income by working as a chef at local restaurants.
His sister plans to print some of his best pictures to share with his friends and family. That will include her favorite, one of a woman on Treasure Island beach where Pelak was able to keep the image in focus while still conveying movement.
“His legacy is going to be sealed in his art work,” she said.
His death prompted an outpouring of grief on Facebook.
“You’ve captured every moment that would have been forgotten without you. I don’t know what I’m going to do without you ... Rest In Peace butterbean,” posted friend Avery McKenna.
“I have more photos of me that you’ve taken, than photos with you Nicholas Pelak! But I only imagine you’ll be looking over all of your friends and family in the after life as you always have while living,” wrote Cory Van Valin.
Bradenton photographer Mikki Goldberg first met Pelak when they were both hired to photograph the Earthdance festival.
He had a passing resemblance to actor Johnny Depp and made friends easily, she said. He was part of a large group of artistic people who attended festivals, shared ideas and partied together. At those gatherings, it was his camera that chronicled their revelry.
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“He touched so many people’s lives; he was the most genuine human being,” she said. “We all hope to see him in his next life.”
A viewing and traditional Christian Orthodox Panahida Service is planned for 5 p.m. on Feb. 5 at St. Andrew’s Russian Orthodox Church, 6465 54th Ave N, St. Petersburg. A funeral service will take place at 10 a.m. Feb. 6 also at St. Andrew’s.