Lisa Kereszi is a photographer and educator, based in New Haven, CT. On the occasion of her New York group show at Leslie Tonkonow Gallery and a public art project in Times Square, Lisa discusses the motivating forces that drive her practice.
JOHANNES DEYOUNG: Thanks for making time. We’ve known each other for a long time, and it occurs to me that we’ve never talked too deeply about your process. Can we talk about that?
LISA KERESZI: Well, thank you for initiating this dialogue. I think that the creative process can frequently be pretty solitary, so if we are talking about art all day in an academic setting, I can see why our own personal practices don’t get discussed very often. In a way, I think there is some self-preservation involved when an artist is also an educator/administrator - our time alone to make work is sacred. And that process for me has really evolved. It changed a lot for me with stepping away from film and towards digital, with moving out of the city just over 10 years ago, with increased roles and responsibilities at an academic job, and now, most obviously, after having a child. But in general, it would go something like this, for most of my work that is out there - that work someone most likely would know me by: I’d follow my nose or my circumstance, or both - so just instinctively make pictures as either a targeted part of a specific investigation - a project or even a sub-plot in a bigger project, or I would shoot in general as I traveled. The best pictures from my various projects or modes of working end up serving a larger, overarching theme.
In the past I worked with mainly a Mamiya 7 6x7 camera, sometimes doing long exposures on a tripod indoors, and sometimes a 4x5 Wista field camera. I would make an appointment to get access to shoot an interior space or place or person I was interested in for whatever reason, and show up with my gear to spend several hours exposing however many rolls or sheets as necessary (5 rolls of 120? 15? 35?) After each shoot, I’d have the color film promptly developed, and I would rent darkroom space to make contact sheets and 8x10 work prints of the pictures that stood out. Later, I could scan and print 8.5x11’s at home on an affordable Epson scanner. I’d end up with boxes of pictures that had potential of one sort or another. Then, depending on whether or not a deadline was in sight - a book, an exhibition, a proposal - I could just sit on them, adding them to this box on that subject or that box on that idea. I would be done with a project or a theme either when the inquiry just became less urgent and vital, or sputtered out when I realized I was aiming for a dead-end. But things I have set aside could always be picked back up if it made sense as a part of something else later.
I also did editorial work for magazines, so I would be sent all over the place, from Detroit to Kazakhstan, and would always try to stay a few extra days so that I could explore and make pictures on my own. I would tend to get hired to shoot the kinds of things I am interested in anyway (amusement parks, strip clubs, theatres), so I could frequently make pictures for myself in and around the places I was being sent to for a client. I also applied for residencies in places that I had some interest in for one reason or another, like Florida or Hungary or the Hudson Valley. I was always the “ghost” the other artists would say at these things. They would be around the studios all day, but I would slip out after breakfast and return (maybe) only when daylight faded, because I was always looking for that thing that I couldn’t quite pre-conceptualize, but that I would recognize as having found it upon arrival. You know it when you see it. For lack of a far better metaphor, isn’t that how someone once defined pornography?
Then, if I have space, I can hang up the small prints, moving them around, putting new ones up, taking the now-lukewarm ones down, until 100 images can be distilled down to 25, 20, or even 10. When I was a young photographer, right out of college, I was lucky enough to work for Nan Goldin, who had me get her a big 4x8’ piece of white foam-core and tacks, which she would lean up against her wall or velvet shelves (yes, pale rose pink velvet shelves, if I am remembering correctly) and pin the 6x8” Fuji Pictrostat prints (early composite analog/digital c-prints) up for contemplation, editing, shuing and discarding. That is one way to do it if you don’t have a studio, something that I still don’t really have as part of my practice, though that’s a long-term goal. After wheedling the thousands of frames taken down to what really stands out, both as the best photographs, but also as the best combination of images and their sequence, only then do I make them larger (16x20” or 20x24”) to see if they hold up or fail to do so. I was having shows about every two years or so, and that is not a bad amount of time for a consistent workflow. Without some kind of a deadline or endpoint, I confess I am a bit lost on my own sometimes.
Now that I am working digitally, and also have very few free and focused hours in the day, I am still finding my footing in how to edit and organize now. My desktop is full of folders that need to be sorted through, images rated, and new folders created with selects. If I have a project or theme, that is not too hard to whittle down and organize, if gifted the time. But when I am still seeking that underlying idea to tie it all together, avoidance is unfortunately easier with a jammed desktop than with a stack of negatives and contact sheets there sitting on top of the scanner.
JD: I’m interested to hear you say more about sequence. It’s an aspect of your practice that operates on multiple levels - I mean, there’s the distillation of time in a single picture, but in your groupings there’s also a sense of time’s relative expanse and collapse, a collision of past and present.
LK: Sequence is incredibly important to photographers. The picture has to work both individually, but also as part of a narrative. The storytelling doesn’t have to be a conventional or temporal one, either, for what comes before and comes next to matter - it can be poetic. When I sequence, I sense that it is pretty instinctive, and I wonder if it could seem opaque to a viewer. Without actually knowing much about music composition and conducting, I confess that I feel a bit like that is what I am doing when I lead a viewer through suites of images in a book: creating some kind of visual, symphonic piece, bringing the emotion and tension up, and then back down. On a wall, the way a viewer moves from picture to picture is dierent than when turning the pages of a book, too. There is something more intimate about being in private with a photobook than in the self-conscious public space of the gallery, like you are reading a chapbook of poetry or a good novel. You lose yourself in a book more readily than in a white cube, I think. When you flip the page of a book, the image that came before has a residue in your mind, if not on your retina, so you can layer pictures to give way to one another in a revelatory way. In addition, colors can vibrate off one another in separate images, creating tension or calm, and forms and shapes can have a “rhyme” to them , or a dissonance. Like a fair share of great photographers before me, I, of course, wanted to be a writer, but a college literature teacher disabused me of that notion with an eloquently biting criticism that was quite possibly accurate: You do not have the love of language that is necessary to be a poet. So, I took my 2o -year old self and my notion of poetic self-expression and marched over to the photo department, my other major, and decided to make the poetry visual instead. It’s really wonderful how organic and subconscious making and ordering pictures can be.
JD: One thing that draws my interest in your work is its sense of searching. I imagine the making of your work - you’ll have to help me here - but I imagine you’re taking a walk and you discover something. I imagine that the thing you discover is somehow predestined to enter your frame, not necessarily as a conscious act, but rather you’ve primed yourself to find threads on a theme, and through a series of pictorial moments the theme emerges. Can you talk about how you come to the themes in your work?
LK: Yes, that’s exactly right. I like thinking about it that way. The aspect of discovery is important. There’s something crucial to me about that first instant coming upon something, turning the corner and seeing the light hitting an object that certain way, placed a certain way in life against that certain spot, mabe juxtaposed with another form. The moment of discovery feels inherent to the work, too, like the viewer is seeing it for the first time when the see the photograph on the wall or in the book. As if to prove the point to myself, the handful of times I have tried to return to the scene of the “crime” to remake a picture that I felt like I had missed somehow when first taking it (maybe it had some perceived technical failure that I deemed could only be fixed by reshooting), I’ve only then realized what a waste of time trying to reshoot it is. I usually end up accepting whatever flaws the original had as happy accidents instead.
LK: Thinking about those times, those turning a corner and having those voila sensations, like in an abandoned military hospital on Governors Island or in a haunted house staged for Halloween in the woods, it’s an almost addictive feeling. And I feel like you are always chasing that next find, but for it also to stay a solid picture and not just be about that moment, you have to still get a little shock later when you see it for a second time on the screen or on the contact. That instant of recognition has to lead to a picture that holds up to scrutiny over time. It’s hard to describe the “zone” a photographer gets in when armed to expect and decisively and instinctively react to that instant when everything falls into place in front of the camera. It’s definitely a high, whether you are actually shooting in a warzone or just at a wedding, to be unsure what you are looking for exactly until you find it, and then - everything clicks.
But individual images then have to add up to support themes and express a narrative. Whether I have a subject I am consciously photographing around or not, I think my themes in general have been revealed slowly over time from my subconscious. For example, I consciously knew I wanted to photograph at night in graduate school, and I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. I knew it was about fear somehow, but I wasn’t exactly challenging my fears by really putting myself at much risk photographing at night in the country or the suburbs, or indoors in a place that had given me permission. Around the same time, as an oshoot of the nocturnal pictures, I started photographing in bars, nightclubs and strip clubs, all places I oddly enough didn’t really want to find myself in during my free time.
I knew these images had to do with descending into the kinds of places my father or a long string of ex-boyfriends would enter into as part of their addictions to one thing or another. I only later realized that the work was about the psychology of escapism and investigating places constructed for fantasy. I was still, on the inside, a child trying to understand why my dad, or any other number of people in my life, felt the need to escape reality at all costs, including at the cost of our family and our relationships.
JD: Family is important. Your family has entered your work in a variety of ways. Can you talk about the ways in which family has informed your practice over time?
LK: In my final critique in graduate school, Gregory Crewdson spoke first after I read an artist statement I had nervously read aloud. After congratulating me on an eloquently-written piece, he went on to say that what I had said (something about picturing the traces left behind, I think) had nothing to do with the work on the wall. He went on a separate tangent to explain how a success of mine instead was that I had finally instinctively learned that I didn’t need to directly make images of my family in order for my work to be about my family - that pictures of other things could be stand-ins, and act as metaphors for the deep feelings and baggage I carried with me. This was a revelation that enabled me to continue on that work about escapism for years to come. He had been reacting also to my first-year work, which I started out by stating that I intended to make a book about my family’s junkyard, using the scrapyard as a motif to tell the story of the dissolution of a family and the American Dream. I fairly quickly veered away from that, and worked with archival material, recreating family albums. That advice had been sound, because it was not until 12 years after graduating, in 2012, that I finally came to an understanding enough about both photography and also the project to be able to order the family pictures into a book that actually worked and wasn’t merely documentary. I couldn’t have made some of the best pictures that made it into the book unless I had come to that understanding that grad school facilitated about pictures and metaphor. There were pictures I wasn’t able to make until after finishing that had more to do with expressing something vital and powerful about a thing in situ itself (acting as a metaphor) than about too clearly trying to express my strong feelings about the trauma in my family.
LK: One’s own family is pretty popular photo student class fodder, such an obvious subject, but it is at the same time potentially the source of all pain and mystery and art, too. That’s another thing Gregory always quotes, how Hemingway said that “you can’t get away from yourself". Once I became a sentient artist, I always knew that my family’s business, an automotive junkyard open for over 50 years in Southeastern Pennsylvania, was quite literally, a gold mine for me to delve into for subject matter and meaning. The earliest photograph I took there that I used in the book was taken when I was sixteen. It seems like such an obvious metaphor, but it took the writer of the book’s essay, Ginger Strand, to title her piece “Salvage,” and show me that I was a photographic alchemist, turning scrap iron and garbage into something with meaning and value.
The irony here is that as a child, I was incredibly embarrassed of my family and its reputation and the business, but ultimately, I have basically put the whole story up for display, as a family history and a cautionary tale. I followed that book up with the 2014 artist’s book, e More I Learn About Women, a ri o of a popular outlaw biker sticker my dad put on an album of his photographs that he gave me for research for the junkyard project. The real thing reads, “The more I learn about women, the more I love my motorcycle.” It was a no-brainer to photograph the album cover and adapt it for my book cover, the irony there being obviously that as he lived that motto, which boy he did, the more it hurt his little family at home, including his daughters. We grew up with the most base representations of women and how men should treat them (i.e., badly), and I can’t even go into and try to analyze how that must have affected us and our self-image. That book went on to appropriate my dad’s photos of women and motorcycles, with cropping cropping and sequencing, and take them back, own them, and turn it into some kind of a poetic statement by a confused adult child. It’s both me honoring my dad’s photography, which is pretty good at times, but also me being critical of how he raised two daughters, or how he didn’t, actually, while it was my mom and grandmothers who were back at home taking care of us.
I created and published that book while I was pregnant, and I am sure the creation of a new family is what led me to make that work and want to re-contextualize his imagery in that way. Having a child, as you know, changes everything: changes your day-to-day life in ways you never could have previsualized, and also changes the way you see the dangers and the beauty of the world, too. This brings me to the first series that I did digitally, mostly with a very portable Sony RX1R. I was terrified of giving birth, and of becoming a mother. I knew that my life was about to change, that I would have to make sacrifices, that my career would never be the same. But like I said a moment ago, the dread and fear was free-floating; I couldn’t fully grasp what having no time or energy or focus to make work like I had known it would actually be like or feel like. Don’t misunderstand, I wanted this next phase in our lives, and suffered two miscarriages to get there, but as an older mom, I had so many fears about everything - failure on so many levels, losing my freedom - that it was debilitating. I had antenatal anxiety and then postpartum depression, both which had to be treated with medication. I had thought I had been depressed before, albeit mildly, but this was a wake-up call; it felt like nothing I’d ever felt before. Part of my therapy ended up being leaving the house and taking walks with her and bringing my camera. I just kind of woke up one day and started to come out of the fog and realized that that was the way to be a photographer again, but a new version of myself as an artist, with baby on board. I called it simply, Walking with Ottilie, inspired by Robert Adams’s director’s cut Summer Nights, Walking, and that’s just what we did. It gave me a renewed sense of purpose outside of being a mother and an educator to give myself the assignment of having that primed sense you spoke of earlier to find meaning everywhere. We went for walks in our town, in the cemetery, in parks, beaches, amusement parks (my old stomping ground), nature centers, or you name it from the kid’s listings in the paper. And I suddenly found myself surrounded with those aha moments again, but so many of them circled around the themes of conception, gestation, birth, the cycle of life, recovery and discovery. Eggs, circles, even a pregnancy test stick tossed in the gutter. I also started to look at other people’s kids and other parental gestures as fodder, focusing on parental anxiety and unconditional love. That project has only been shown in bits and pieces here and there, so I am not sure how accessible or resonant it is to others. It makes a whole lot of sense to me, though. The project ended when the bulk of the picture-making slowed down to a trickle as she got older and less portable, and more vocal and independent. No longer strapped into a stroller or carrier, she grew less and less patient for mommy’s picture-making. In fact, she started to demand my camera, so we had to get her her own Panasonic Lumix. She is actually a pretty serious photographer for a four-year-old. Excuse me: four-and-a-half year old. My husband and I are working on an edit of her pictures for another project, but she is so prolific; it is hard to keep up with her!
LK: But then the walking project was also interrupted by life, and death, and over the past two years I lost both my dad and my paternal grandmother, just a few years after losing my maternal one. This situation brings me to my current project, which centers on the idea of home as place of a personal history worth preserving and scrutinizing and also a place of either sanctuary or trauma. This is the first time that I have really had occasion to conceptualize a body of work before making it, rather than the other way around. I am combining new work with existing photographs of mine around that theme, both in and around family homes as well as other images of domestic space I have made, arranged along with archival and found material relating to my father and grandmother, both physical material I was able to save from the trash as well as images I will appropriate from the internet related to saved objects and lost homes. I also hope to try some processes that date back to the 19th century and photography’s first era as part of my image-making process. I hesitate to be too detailed here yet, although I have very specific ideas and strategies about the exact materials and how it all relates. I have become quite obsessed with what of intrinsic and aesthetic value I can save that belonged to each of them, because I have been in what I can really only publicly describe as a family feud, with one difficult person who has tried to bar me from entering the property. It’s been a mess, a mess that has really interrupted the grieving process, or changed how it has been felt and processed by me. But the hard year and property situation has really only directly led to the inception of this project, as I once again persist in salvaging something in order to create meaning.
I realize that I have made a lot of work that veers back into that familiar territory of directly photographing one’s own family, but I do subscribe to the notion best described by Diane Arbus when she said, “The more specific you are, the more general it’ll be.” This lesson she learned from working with Lisette Model seems apt - it’s about relatability. The story of my family, and my loss, must resonate with others, even in some small way. Everybody has a family, so many of them with secrets and pain, and everybody has to deal with losing someone, and taking what is left and moving forward. This is why books about losing someone and dealing with death are best-sellers; readers are searching for guidance. Of course I ordered and could relate to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, which have to be two of the greatest titles in literary history. In the days after my grandmother’s sudden, yet somehow-expected, death, I was in Detroit on auto-pilot, hanging a show about her and the junkyard. I couldn’t not go and mount this show that was supposed to be a living memorial, but turned out to be a more somber one. I was curating scrap and loading it onto wheelbarrows to place in the gallery and hanging photos on the wall of her young and old, and was in a daze. I went on not just because the show must go on, but because it somehow seemed like an act of respect for it to still go on, and at that very moment. A photo of my dad fell off the wall that week, and I feared the worst, that it was somehow an omen. I had that image that fell, a portrait of him sitting stoic in his treasured 1956 Pink Cadillac, etched on his gravestone, thus ticking an item off a photographer’s bucket list that I wouldn’t thought to have had. I now feel really proud that I have memorialized them all in these ways through my work. There is comfort in recalling the indigenous American instinct repeated in that whisper from Westworld last season, “You only live as long as the last person who remembers you.” I can’t bring them back, but I guess I can keep them from completely leaving by telling their stories. There’s something I said about my grandmother in another person’s memorial service last year that I meant, but that is not as easy as it sounded for me to fully accept. I wrote, but only partially quoted aloud, “It gives me some measure of comfort when I look at our daughter and know that some of her genetic material lives on inside this little person, and how she’s there when I stroke her hair at bedtime, just as my grandmother would do for us when she put my sister and I to bed."
JD: I love what you say about parenting. Parenting can be such an overwhelming wave of sensation, not too dissimilar from the creative wave, but definitely a new level of exhaustion. It might be the deepest, most fulfilling, most ironic exhaustion I can imagine. I mean, there’s a transference of energy that happens between parents and children, and somehow we learn to negotiate it - or not.
I recall hearing somewhere along the way that when birds roost on electrical wires, only those in the middle of the line actually sleep. Birds roosting on the outer edges only half-sleep, because their brains are constantly attuned to their surroundings. That must be a biological switch, or some kind of survival strategy - that ability to be simultaneously present and omnipresent. It sounds like you’ve found a similar strategy through creative practice with your daughter.
LK: I frequently envy the working parents who only appear to have two full-time jobs: parenting and the day-job for which they receive a salary. As artists, we have a third tacked on, because we have to make our work, too, not to mention the career aspect in which we have to package that work in order to share it, make contacts in order to show and publish the work, speak and write about it. If bedtime gets drawn out past 830, I am screwed for the night. With my current body of work, I just can’t seem to carve out enough time and mental focus to make much progress on the series. I can already sort of see the end point, specific yet-to-be made images and grids, but the actual process of physically making the work is a harder thing to do right now. In addition to my academic job, and the emails, the emails, the emails, there is also the laundry, the dishes, the leaves, the wildlife trying to get in the house,the 5th birthday parties, the shopping, it all gets in the way, not to mention some psychological avoidance I must also have due to the fact that making this work will also be an act of grieving.
I hadn’t heard that about birds on a wire, but, of course, I completely get it. I had no idea how much freedom I once had - sleeping in until 9 or 10, traveling all over whenever I wanted,no life-or-death responsibilities. Then, when you are in the last stages of pregnancy and certainly in the wee hours, days and weeks, and months, you start of hear about this thing called a “sleep deficit,” and you realize you may never sleep well again, or at least not for a couple years. Sleep deprivation is no joke, and I feel like that was part of my problem. But I am being too literal here. I like what you said about being present and omnipresent, and I feel like it is something that just happens, and it’s not really a bad thing for an artist to be: present and hyper-aware, albeit exhausted. It can be frustrating when you see the most amazing thing unveil itself before your eyes, but you are just too damn tired to go pick up the camera. For example, I recently realized that I loaded exposed 4x5 film back into my film holders, resulting in double-exposures, which seemed to be happy accidents only for a brief moment.I honestly do not know how it happened, but it did.It has been reassuring to come to new understandings about authorship and selflessness, too, in working with her on the Walking work, and also encouraging and judging her own nascent pictures.
JD: Does Salvage have new meaning to you now, viewed through the lens of parenthood?
LK: Definitely. I think part of what the new work is about is just that. People joke about how it’s inevitable that you become your parents when you grow up and have children. When you come from a dysfunctional family it’s nerve-wracking to think about, and when you come from a family with a history of mental illness, addiction and suicide, it’s urgent, even life-or-death. You are trying to build a new family, but the heavy weight of family history seems to be always creeping up behind you, nipping at your heels, and the potential of a self-fulfilling prophecy seems to always be there - that is, unless you find some way to cause a break in the line of trauma. I was startled when I first learned about epigenetics, and how trauma can be read in our genes, and how genetic misfortune can be switched on by environmental stressors in a parent. It almost feels impossible to fight nature with nurture once the previous damage has been done. But I have to try to take what I was given and what I am left with and turn it into something (and someone) meaningful and beautiful and that makes the world somehow a better place to be in, rather than add to the psychic drain that is the alternative to that salvation. You know, I haven’t thought much about that word: salvation, in relation to my work and the idea of salvage. I’m not at all religious, but my grandmother was, and she was always looking for her lord to emancipate her from her pain and misfortune. I suppose I have no other choice, then, but to work for a better family and healthy progeny to make the best out of her sacrifice, involuntary or otherwise. The work I’m making will be about the search for self and identity in family - the old one and the new one, and about leaving home and then finding a new one. It will be about making a home for my family now, one that breaks free from the cycles of violence and abuse and tragedy that my grandmother's life was colored by.