At Radium Photo, 110 years of loving, documenting and celebrating Muskegon

Radium Photo has a collection of about 1,500 historic photos, including this one of Western Avenue in 1939. Photo courtesy of Radium Photo

The story of Radium Photo is, in many ways, the story of Muskegon.

The second oldest operating business in the city, Radium Photo has, for the past 110 years, printed and photographed the images depicting the ebb and flow of the city: parades down a Western Avenue lined with men in top hats and women in petticoats, the Pigeon Hill sand dune that once towered a couple hundred feet above Lake Michigan, the fire that devastated the Occidental Hotel in 1936, the comings and goings of the people and places that have called Muskegon home for more than a century.

For generations, the Cihak family—the family that started and still owns and operates the business—has been a witness to history, and has, through the images it has photographed and printed, told thousands upon thousands of our stories: the sports games and birthday parties, weddings and births, family picnics and school reunions. They’ve given us the photographs showing the growth of Western Avenue, the rise and fall of the mall, and, now, the continued evolution of a downtown they’ve always loved.

Charles Cihak III and Charles Cihak IV. Photo by Anna Gustafson

“I’m proud we’ve been able to stay downtown the whole time we’ve been in business,” Radium Photo general manager Charles Cihak IV says Saturday, as the photography establishment celebrated its two-day 110th anniversary party. “When I started here, the mall was going away. There was a big, empty parking lot and not a lot of traffic downtown. Now, the downtown is booming. Seeing the new businesses and buildings and restaurants popping up is exciting.”

The Cihaks have long been a photography family—in the 1800s, they worked as photographers in Chicago before moving to Muskegon. In 1909, Joseph Cihak opened Radium Photo on Western Avenue, and in 1915 he sold it to his brother, Charles Cihak—the first of the four Charles to run the business. It operated in a couple storefronts on Western Avenue before it had to move in the early 1970s because its building was slated to be razed for the incoming Muskegon Mall. For a couple of years, it operated out of a double-wide trailer before debuting in 1975 at its current home at 835 Terrace St.—a downtown venue located across the street from The Cheese Lady and Morat’s Bakery and around the corner from such spots as the Muskegon Farmers’ Market and Nipote’s Italian Kitchen.

It has grown to offer high-end printing for photographers, artists and businesses, as well as a wide range of other services, including taking the portraits of 15,000 to 20,000 West Michigan school children each year, photography for youth sports leagues, and more. Currently, Charles Cihak III owns Radium Photo; his son, Charles Cihak IV, serves as its general manager, and his daughter, Whitney Cihak, is the head of its school portrait operations. 

“It means a lot to us that it’s always been family owned,” Cihak IV says. 

After opening in 1909, Radium Photo operated in a couple different storefronts on Western Avenue, including this one at 145 Western Ave. Photo courtesy of Radium Photo
In 1975, Radium Photo moved to the building they still call home at 835 Terrace St. in downtown Muskegon. Photo by Anna Gustafson

The Cihak family invited the community to its 110th anniversary party this past Friday and Saturday, when crowds of area residents, photographers, longtime customers, business leaders, and others gathered to commemorate the milestone.

“I want to say thank you guys, to your entire family…for investing in Muskegon and continuing to invest in Muskegon,” Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Membership Dawn Johnson says during their anniversary kick-off Friday evening. 

“Your commitment to the community directly improves the quality of life for those living in the Muskegon Lakeshore,” Johnson continues.

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Susie Rodriguez, of state Sen. Jon Bumstead’s office, too praised the the business and its role in growing the community for more than a century.

“This professional printing company, which was established in 1909, has prospered and expanded,” Rodriguez says Friday while presenting the Cihak family with a proclamation from the state of Michigan. “This anniversary marks an important milestone for its highly successful business. Radium Photo has spent over a century establishing its reputation as a premier printing company in Muskegon. By investing in the highest of professional equipment and top-of-the-line materials, they are able to best preserve and document the lives they have been in business with.”

“Radium Photo has provided needed jobs to Michigan citizens and contributed to the economy of our state for over a century,” Rodriguez continues.

For the Cihak family, their success is deeply rooted in the people who have worked for them. Currently, the business employs eight full-time employees and 10 to 15 seasonal employees.

“Without them, we wouldn’t be here,” Charles Cihak III says of Radium Photo’s employees. “We’ve got to celebrate them as well. This is a celebration of the past 110 years, but to me it’s also a celebration of the future.”

“And a celebration of the next 110 years,” Whitney Cihak adds as the crowd before her on Fridays cheers.

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As with the downtown around it, Radium Photo has grown and evolved over the years. In its early days, it did some portrait work, as well as sold frames and pictures. 

“We definitely were more retail and portraiture and developed into doing some school and sports photography,” Cihak IV says. “That’s a huge part of our business now; we work with a lot of schools in the area, a lot of youth sports leagues, and camps like the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp.”

Over the years, the business has worked with many of the community’s photographers and artists on photo enlargements, fine art prints, and more, and such photographers or artists as Tim Bonnette, Carl Carter, Joe Gee, Jenna Gee, and Jeremy Church, among many others, routinely use Radium’s printing lab for everything from prints of paintings for exhibits to photos to sell at the Lakeshore Art Festival, among a myriad of other places.

“With the amount of printing we do with local photographers and artists, I can go into a lot of restaurants and businesses and see something we’ve done on their walls,” Cihak IV says. “I can say, ‘I printed that personally.’”

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As Radium’s story continues, the Cihak family plans to increase their role with local businesses, such as helping them to redecorate to include photography and prints from local artists. Already, the business has worked with their commercial colleagues on printing historical (and current) photos of Muskegon. Right now, Radium has binders filled with about 1,500 historical photos of Muskegon, from beach scenes and streetscapes to specific industries and local landmarks, and they’ll often make prints of these photos for area businesses.

“Over the next 10, 20 years, we’re going to keep expanding with school portraits and youth sports leagues,” Cihak IV says. “We’ll of course keep printing with local photographers, and we’ll be growing what we do with local businesses.”

In the years to come, Radium Photo will be doing what it has from the beginning: supporting and celebrating Muskegon and documenting those moments, big and small, that make up the lives of those who call the city home.

“We love being in Muskegon,” Cihak IV says. “We could never imagine being anywhere else.”

Story by Anna Gustafson. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

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