Karen Jerzyk photographs beauty in the grotesque

“I want my photos to portray a story, but I want the story to be different and personal to each person who looks at it. There’s no right or wrong way to read my photos. I just want people to feel something, whether that feeling is sadness or joy or whatever it may be, I want my photos to have some sort of voice.”

For a long time, photography operated under a very rigid formula. Even after the transition from film to digital photography, one still must have expertise in light, space and angle, while understanding and respecting its limitations accordingly. Photographer Karen Jerzyk pushes against these boundaries daily, embracing the true artistry that is idea to image. She combines innovative methods and technology to make an outstanding concept a reality. She has found her niche, which is what every serious photographer hopes to achieve.

It’s simple: Once you are familiar with Jerzyk’s work, you will know it anywhere.

Karen JerzykWhen looking at a Jerzyk photo, you will undoubtedly notice first the subject (or model) in the piece. Oftentimes, these models are in clothing and sporting hair that is an art all in itself ~ or possibly wearing no clothing at all and seemingly in a state of madness. Then, you will notice behind these subjects are settings that are not often seen, nearly forgotten eras of culturally embarrassing times past:  mental institutions with equipment that was used in barbaric treatments for patients or homes with unique character. There is peeling paint and jagged windows and antique furniture, light fixtures and plumbing. There is wildly pattered wallpaper, wheelchairs, crumbling fireplaces and graffiti, and Jerzyk makes this all look beautiful in its degraded state … flawless in its brokenness, hoping to restore character and personality to something that has been lost or abandoned.

Where her shooting locations are hidden is confidential. Although Jerzyk lives in New Hampshire, she does many of her portrait shoots in Central Massachusetts, and many of her concert shoots take place at The Palladium.

Karen Jerzyk

In her more recent work, Jerzyk explores the world of the truly fantastic and weird, with masked models, children, fire, water, colored smoke and laws of gravity completely defied. She, through her work, asks the open ended question, “What if?” What if there were no rules, physically or spiritually speaking? What if all laws and limits were turned upside down, the world was flipped inside out and anything could happen? And she answers with, “Let me show you.”

Her inspiration comes from many places, Jerzyk said. “I read a lot, listen to a ton of music and watch a lot of weird movies. Sometimes, that stuff gives me ideas. Books are the best because you can have a hundred people read the same passage and each person will visually portray what they read in a completely different way. I also have pretty gnarly dreams and draw a lot of my ideas from those.”

Though Jerzyk’s artwork can be construed (and sometimes, misconstrued) as dark and horrific, she challenges viewers to see further into her world. Beyond the sometimes shocking initial impact of what she portrays, there is a palette of color and an almost painting-like quality to her work. I asked her if she thought the content was, indeed, dark.

“There’s just something about my personality and feelings that comes out in my photos that portrays something that just feels off. Uncomfortable,” Jerzyk said.

When her father passed away a few years ago from a heart attack/stroke in her home, Jerzyk was greatly impacted.

“Visually, it was all so jarring to me. It changed me. Sometimes I just replay each second in slow motion, from that moment to watching him die in the hospital. Those moments just completely wiped out any good memories I had in that house, but over time that eventually went away. I hold onto those bad memories and feelings like a delicate thing, and I use them carefully when I need to … I feel blessed that I was able to take what happened and allow it to become fuel for what I do. You can either crumble or you can use what life gives you to build your dreams. Burying my head in the sand has never been an option.”

Karen JerzykSometimes, Jerzyk is the subject of her own photos, bringing out many dimensions of possibility for one single face. Using makeup, latex, contact lenses and other tools, she completely transforms herself in each self-portrait. So much so, you wouldn’t guess it was the same person. “A lot of them,” she said, “are basically super-exaggerated depictions of how I’ve felt, either physically or mentally. So you could say they are a small part of my persona. It’s like seeing an acute version of an experience.”

Like in her self-portraits, Jerzyk believes in reinvention.

“When I first started doing portraits, I had no direction,” Jerzyk said. “I wasn’t really thinking about wardrobe or makeup or location. When I did come up with ideas, they were pretty terrible ~ my composition was atrocious and my locations were boring. There was a period of time where I contemplated using a studio, but I didn’t have the money for that, which, in hindsight, was a blessing. I decided to use natural light and to find my own locations. A friend of mine mentioned that there were a lot of these cool things in the places I was shooting and that I should use them and set them up, which can be … which was unheard of, because sometimes it’s noisy and a ton of work, not to mention super time-consuming. But I tried it. I started shooting horizontally; getting the entire scene I set up and giving my photos a more cinematic feel.”

Speaking of cinema, Jerzyk has always wanted to be involved in film. “I’ve recently been asked to help here and there with various projects in that regard, and I would definitely love to go down that path a lot more. I’m more of a movie person than a photo person, in terms of what I like aesthetically. Movies have had a huge impact on me.”

To experience Jerzyk’s photography, check out karenjerzykphoto.com and facebook.com/karenjerzykphoto.

By Jennifer Russo