Lisa Kereszi: Photographs
with an essay by Carol Kino
Out of print
THE WORLD'S A STAGE
Lisa Kereszi’s photographs sometimes seem to open into a world that’s fashionable in photography right now, but she arrived at this stylishness partly by accident. Her eerie lighting may suggest that her scenes have been staged. It’s easy to read her focus on odd corners and empty rooms as modish shorthand for anomie. As for her rundown interiors, their plainspoken presentation may imply, to some, that she’s crossed over to the other side of the tracks in search of irony.
Yet Kereszi is herself a product of at least a corner of the world that appears in her pictures. And even though she takes pains to present it in a clear-sighted way, its coincidental chic makes it easy to misread her methods and intentions.
Take the photograph “Junkyard Office,” which shows a room so crowded with stuff that at first it’s hard to figure out what’s here. You see a desk, a blank-screened TV, many sheets of fluttering, pinned-up paper and, looming over everything, a lot of hokey signs bearing messages like, “IF THE SMALL PART U WANT IS NOT WORTH $10, DONT ASK” and “HOWDY! NOW GIT!”
Though some viewers have assumed this scene is staged, Kereszi says, it actually offers an unadulterated slice of her real life. “My Dad’s a biker and he’s covered with tattoos. My family has a junkyard.” She describes the junkyard as “a failing business—a failed business. It’s for sale, but they’re having trouble finding someone to buy it.” When Kereszi was growing up, her mother briefly ran an antique shop. “Both the yard and the shop are about scavenging and hunting, like that line about one man’s trash being another man’s treasure,” she wrote to me once in an e-mail.
By the same token, because of Kereszi’s educational background (undergraduate years spent at Bard College on scholarship, art school years spent in Yale’s M.F.A. program), some viewers have assumed that she’s an outsider looking in at the world she depicts. “I feel like having gone to Yale changes things. People look at my pictures and think, ‘Oh, she’s slumming.’”
What’s striking about Kereszi, however, is her ability to observe and speak straightforwardly about her life and the conundrums it poses. I think you can also see this attitude replicated in her pictures, most of which now depict something other than her family milieu.
Though Kereszi used to photograph her family frequently when she was at Bard, her teachers at Yale urged her to concentrate on other subjects. “A great piece of advice I got,” she says, “was that you can photograph other things, but have it be about the same issues by the way you approach it, and by your use of form.”
Since then, she has chosen to focus on pictures without people (with some notable exceptions, discussed below). Usually, her pictures hone in on some off-kilter detail or moment.
“Red Ferrari, Miami” presents what looks like a shiny, animal-like red creature, slipping snake-like out of a dull red skin. It’s a car—but because Kereszi puts the side-view mirror near the center of the shot, it resembles a sci-fi creature—maybe the sort that appears in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster films. (Kereszi, who also does commercial photography, made this picture on her own at a Wallpaper shoot: while the designers were busy creating stage-sets within the house, she snuck down to the garage to photograph its real interior for herself.)
“4th of July at the Racetrack, Connecticut” focuses on the ground combustion of a fireworks display, rather than the explosion it produces in the sky. Smoke billows up from the fiery orange mass, while an eerily-lit truck seems to wheel away from it, around a circular road. Though this picture suggests the elaborate staging of Gregory Crewdson’s photographs, it comes straight from life. Kereszi got the shot by positioning herself in the right place—well out in front of the crowd—and focusing on an unexpected aspect of the scene. It is this sort of approach that defines her work.
Kereszi works with a medium-format camera, usually mounted on a tripod, and exposures that typically run from four seconds to four minutes long, using available light. She shoots a lot of film, and she never crops. “I believe strongly in not cropping, because you’re supposed to crop when you take the picture—like you’re framing the world.” In addition, her pictures aren’t digitally manipulated. “People have thought they were, but it’s important to me that they’re not.”
In fact, many of her more recent photographs seem to contain their own cropping device: often, architectural elements create a frame within the one designated by the photograph’s edges. In “Parking Garage, Las Vegas,” an opening in the side of a gloomy garage creates a severely geometric border for the pink and white facade of the facing building, whose lozenge-like reliefs echo the fronds of the nearby palm trees.
Sometimes, as in “Grandmother’s Mirror,” the picture’s interior frame actually is a frame. Here, Kereszi focuses on a cosmetic mirror propped on a dressing table. Because its bulbs are fully lit, and the rest of the room is dark, we can only faintly discern the surrounding decanters and unguents, and there’s a rectangular, shadowy void where the mirror’s reflection should be. (A similar framed void turns up in “Junkyard Office”: the scene’s chaos is anchored by a television whose screen glows blankly white, courtesy of the long exposure.)
Curiously, even though Kereszi’s photographs are shot straight from life, many of them present a stagy, theatrical scene. “Las Vegas at Night II” shows the city as viewed from a hotel window. Its geometric buildings, dramatically aglow with pink, blue, purple, and white lights, are diagonally bisected by a brilliant white highway, framed on either side by copper-colored towers, and framed again by the parted hotel curtains, which are faintly reflected in the glass. One of the very few times Kereszi set something up, using a person as a prop, was in “Dancer Onstage, Times Square, NYC.” Here, a woman in a pink bikini and headdress struts on a barren stage in a gutted Times Square theater. Her body, picked out by a single spot, casts a looming shadow on the wall behind her. Except for the light, everything beyond the proscenium opening is pitch black, creating another frame.
That picture was one of the first in a sideline documentary project Kereszi has worked on for some time, photographing women in the burlesque revival—dancers at clubs like New York’s Va Va Voom Room and Hollywood’s Velvet Hammer, as well as attendees at a New Orleans burlesque convention and the annual stripper’s competition at Exotic World, the burlesque historical museum in California. (Many of these photographs were published in September 2002 in Bust magazine.) But as usual, her pictures don’t obey the expected conventions. They don’t exactly glamorize the women, and they don’t make them look pathetic, either. The emphasis here is on Kereszi’s fabulous composition, which has produced some visually arresting images.
In “Kitten Posing for Photographers, Exotic World,” a performer holding her trophy is seen from behind, standing on an outdoors runway that’s bordered by a white picket fence, as the crowd before her applauds and snaps photographs. Standing in Plexiglas® pumps, with her feet placed in what looks like a ballerina’s third position, she seems to punctuate the paved strip with an exclamation mark. In “Dirty Martini on Toes, Show World,” a dancer garbed in nothing but ruffled panties, a garter, elbow-length gloves, and twirling pasties contorts her body into a zig-zag that stops sharp at her pointed feet. Weirdly enough, she’s also wearing toe shoes. If these pictures document anything at all, it’s the thrill of performance—and sometimes, the thrill of watching performers being observed.
Kereszi originally hooked up with the dancers partly in order to gain access to strip clubs, whose empty spaces and corners she likes to photograph. And often in these pictures, the framed void comes laced with sexual overtones. “Private Booths, Sobe Showgirls, Miami Beach” presents a sidelong view of the entrance to a private lapdancing booth, its corridor framed by black pressboard panels and its dark inner recesses unseen. The club’s registered logo—a pair of crossed, fishnet-stockinged legs, kicking out from a circle—is woven into the carpet and etched on the walls (complete with ®, another circular logo). Though the logo clearly signals the fleshly delights that wait inside, the shot’s curious geometry suggests a metaphysical dimension.
In “Mannequin, Strip Club, New Orleans,” we encounter more fishnet-stockinged legs. This time, the gams belong to a mannequin on a swing, rigged up to kick back and forth through an open window. Kereszi photographed this automaton from below, so the viewer sees straight up at the stained seat on which she’s perched, as her legs head for the opening.
This scene is notable for its crazy perspective and, once again, its weird geometry—it’s made up of off-kilter diagonals. It is also full of loony details, which raise some nagging questions. Who put those snags in the doll’s baggy stockings? Who pulled them onto her legs? Who wore in her creased high heels? Like most of Kereszi’s other work, even though no actual person appears in this scene, the human presence is here, anyway.
by Carol Kino
Carol Kino is a contributing editor at Art & Auction. She writes regularly for Slate, Art in America, Town and Country and the New York Times, among others.
© Carol Kino