MANCHESTER, NH — Asking Karen Jerzyk to succinctly describe what she does for a living winds up being a harder question to answer than one might think. The simple answer is what you will find in any quick Google search of her name, or by the very phrasing of her website address: she is a photographer.
But given a few moments to explore her studio and ask about her process, you’ll understand, she is an artist in every sense of the word. She’s a set builder, a mood-creator, a choose-your-own-adventure storyteller. Her photography is art, designed in one way or another, to evoke emotion that you didn’t even realize you needed to feel.
Slideshow 1: Props for props
Photos by Melanie Haney
After years of traveling and shooting across the country, setting up pop-up themed events in places like LA and New York, today she sets up Monthly Themed Portrait Events in her new studio space in downtown Manchester. Unlike traditional mini-sessions, these events are each like having a few minutes to step inside a work of 3-dimensional art where she photographs you in the elaborate handcrafted scene.
Her studio is in the mills on Bedford Street and the building itself seems the perfect set for a photographer whose mastery of highlighting vacant or abandoned spaces has garnered international attention. Under a looming Morgan Self Storage Company sign, the entryway to the building feels almost like taking a step back in time, the green-painted stairwells, the paneled vending machine dispensing cans of Pepsi. Up a couple flights of stairs and down a long hallway, her shared studio is both exactly what you would expect for a photographer – hardwood floors, exposed brick, natural lighting, high ceilings – and a complete surprise. There is a three-walled set standing in the middle, and beyond it, a veritable wonderland of antiques, prints, books, vintage televisions, wheelchairs, haunting bits of Americana, oddities and knickknacks, even a bathtub. It immediately tells you – this will not be your typical photoshoot.
In another room, she stores a dizzying array of props, wardrobes of vintage clothing, stacks of wallpaper, an adorable handmade robot complete with a very specific pair of dress shoes. On her workspace she shows me a mask that she’s in the process of making using a new material that doesn’t fully harden, keeping it hauntingly lifelike.
The afternoon that I visited with her, the set design was themed around Alice in Wonderland, and she was kind enough to invite my make-up artist daughter to tag along with me and do a few photos in her elaborate “room” complete with the white rabbit and caterpillar. It only took a matter of five minutes and a couple of small directions – look this way, lift your hands to the left, move forward – and we were done. No fancy flashes or studio lighting, not even any moving at all for Karen. She has the scene set so precisely that she knows what she wants to capture and can efficiently maneuver through the session in a matter of well-timed clicks. In fact, if you look past the 40-some-odd hours it took her to create the scene and mold the characters and light the backdrop and set her camera just-so, it could almost feel too easy.
This is all a far cry from where she was after graduating from UNH with her degree in English in the early 2000s, or from the days when she would sneak disposable cameras into concerts to photograph bands from her front-row view.
Like so many artists, her journey from starting out to present-day hasn’t been linear and couldn’t have been mapped-out in a way that other professions can be. Art sometimes requires the roads less taken, the unexpected, and even the mundane or the downright painful. Karen tells me about years of shooting bands with press passes, locally and in larger venues, including heavyweights like Metallica and Aerosmith – but also about years of working under the fluorescent lights in the aisles at Best Buy, where a coworker first suggested she start shooting portraits of people. It’s a balance, being an artist, needing to create and needing to eat.
And it wasn’t until the unexpected passing of her father in 2011 that her work began to truly breathe, to be a life of its own that touched others in ways and depths that it hadn’t before. In working through her grief, camera in hand, she found personal clarity and her work found its soul. The therapeutic nature of art is magic.
When we’re lost and finding our way, the things that break us are often the things that make us.
Her photography is abstract and avant-garde, and the stories each piece tells can be up to the interpretation of the beholder. Her inspiration comes from a variety of places, from her childhood love of 1980s movies, specifically Jim Henson, who created entire realms long before CGI-saturated filmmaking (a pet peeve of hers), to following other artists and photographers. Being inspired and challenged by other artists is one of the best ways to grow. How do you know what’s possible if you’re not looking?
Slideshow 2: Long days and elaborate set designs lend themselves to efficient photo sessions
Photos by Melanie Haney
Jerzyk’s passion for shooting in abandoned buildings came from seeing a single photograph of the Norwich State Hospital theater. Over the years she has photographed vacant, decrepit spaces across the country, setting up her models in remarkable scenes ranging from scuba gear to shadow people, with the paint-peeling walls and rickety staircases being characters all on their own. In a sense, she weaves ghost stories through camera lenses and leaves the door cracked open for her audience to linger in the eerie atmosphere for as long as they wish.
When I ask her about her post-production process, if she uses Photoshop in any of her almost dream-like portraits, she is quick to explain that she doesn’t and furthermore, how she prefers her models and/or clients to look like the real people that they are. Too much artifice can seem like deceit.
For the stunning series of images in her 2017 Color collection, she constructed a boxed room in her basement and painted it – and every piece of furniture and prop – over and over again, white, pink, green, yellow – all in the damp stickiness of August in New England. Could she have used Photoshop? Perhaps, but the shadows on the ground, the shades of reflections, everything was exactly as they should be, because it was real.
In the workshops that she runs out of her studio, she keeps things real as well. She isn’t secretive about her process and is more than willing to help guide other photographers through their own journeys. The eight-hour days include everything from designing sets to working with professional models and building portfolios. It’s an invaluable experience for anyone looking to start out and it’s one that she offers, in part, because she would have loved such a resource for herself. Artists need other artists and a community to flourish and having Karen and her studio here in Manchester can only mean wonderful and creative things for this city.
To learn more about her themed portrait events and workshops, visit the karenjerzykphoto.com and click the “Events” tab, or follow her on social media: