Karen Jerzyk, a New Hampshire-based photographer since 2003, began her career in concert photography before transitioning to portraiture. Her diverse artistic pursuits have expanded into sculpting, painting, set design, and wardrobe design, demonstrating her multifaceted creative abilities. Jerzyk’s work is characterized by a unique blend of surrealism and narrative depth.
Jerzyk’s career experienced a pivotal moment in 2014 following an arrest for trespassing in an abandoned house, an event that paradoxically brought her widespread attention and boosted her career. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she adapted ingeniously, using mannequins and sculpted masks to continue her portrait work. This period also marked her foray into the web3 space with her innovative digital art project Average Creatures, blending sculpted elements with photography.
Renowned for her cinematic quality and emotional storytelling, Jerzyk views her photography as an essential means of communication, using her art to express complex emotions and ideas. Her journey reflects a constant evolution, driven by a passion for exploring new creative horizons and pushing the boundaries of photography and art.
Header image: I Saw the Light by Karen Jerzyk
Rather listen than read? Watch the interview on YouTube.
Brady Walker: I’m very excited today to finally be talking with photographer Karen Jerzyk. Karen, welcome. Maybe you can introduce yourself to our audience.
Karen Jerzyk: Nice to meet you, and thanks for pronouncing my last name right. I’m Karen, a photographer since around 2003, which feels so long ago. I started with concert photography from 2003 to 2009, then shifted to portraiture. Years later, I discovered the web3 space. I’ve also ventured into sculpting, painting, set design, and wardrobe design. I live in New Hampshire but travel a lot.
BW: Looking at your photos, I’m curious about the travel and how you find these places. But first, let’s talk about what you might be most well-known for: the astronaut motif. When did you start using this in your work?
KJ: I was born in the 80s, a complete sci-fi nerd, influenced by movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey. I’ve always been fascinated by the anonymous character of an astronaut, which anyone can relate to.
Around 2017, while in an abandoned house, I was struck by the vibrant colors of the past compared to today’s monochrome interiors. It made me think about exploring history and what Earth might be like in 1000 years, perhaps necessitating life on another planet. This led me to the idea of the lonely astronaut, someone exploring Earth without people like I explore old houses. I take this suit to various places, from old houses to amusement parks and diners, aiming to capture a sense of nostalgia. The suit, especially the helmet, is quite heavy, so it’s a challenge to transport.
BW: You mentioned the anonymity in your astronaut series. There are photos where the face is visible. Do you decide when to show the face or keep it hidden?
KJ: Yes, it often depends on how the light hits the visor, and the weather plays a role too. I don’t have the full breathing apparatus, so the helmets, which are vintage and from places like the Kennedy Space Center, tend to fog up. This fogging can obscure the face completely. It also depends on the person wearing it; those who are claustrophobic tend to fog up the visor quickly, while others remain calm. So, the visibility of the face is influenced by the person and the weather.
BW: You prefer practical effects over digital editing, but there’s a photo of an astronaut levitating outside a gas station. How did you achieve that?
KJ: That was quite simple. In the film industry, it’s called shooting plates. I set my camera on a tripod, take a picture of the scene empty, and then have the person enter it. For the levitating photo, they sat on a stool, appearing to do a crunch. Using Photoshop, I overlay the empty scene onto the second one, effectively erasing the stool. So, it looks like the person isn’t sitting on anything.
BW: I’m not a photographer, but you mentioned breaking into abandoned buildings. Let’s talk about your 2014 arrest and its impact on your career. It’s been almost 10 years; how do you think that helped you?
KJ: I got arrested for trespassing in a house in New Hampshire, a place I had visited several times. I was caught because someone was watching the house and saw me and some models there. At first, they couldn’t prove I was in the house, but my photos from there eventually led me to turn myself in. I was interrogated, thinking I’d just pay a fine. But then, my arrest was covered on TV news, complete with my mugshot, which was unexpected and scary. I was worried about going to jail, as it was a misdemeanor. The media sensationalized it, implying I was disrupting a family’s home, though it was an abandoned house. In court, the media coverage continued.
Ironically, this exposure turned out to be beneficial. My website and photos were shown on the news, leading people to discover my work. My fine was $600, making it the cheapest TV commercial in history. Some thought I got arrested on purpose for publicity, but it wasn’t intentional. The whole experience was emotionally taxing, but it ultimately helped my career.
BW: I read a book over 10 years ago called Access All Areas about exploring and documenting abandoned places. Is there an active community of urban explorers? How do you find these places?
KJ: I generally explore alone because the community can be territorial, almost possessive, over certain locations. People get competitive about being the first to access a site and may call the police on others or destroy iconic items to prevent others from photographing them.
After my arrest, a photographer even called the police station to emphasize my previous visits, which was unsettling. When exploring, you’re breaking the law, so trust and caution are crucial. I’ve encountered unexpected situations, like squatters, so safety is a big concern. I do a lot of internet research and keep folders on Google Drive for potential locations, even in places I’ve never been, like Taiwan. It’s like going down a rabbit hole, discovering one place leads to another. My advice to anyone interested is to be careful and maintain a record of locations you might want to visit.
BW: I’d love to hear about your experience during COVID and how you continued your craft, which I found inspiring.
KJ: I primarily shoot portraits and struggle with landscapes or subjects other than people. When everything shut down in March 2020, I panicked, realizing the situation would last more than a few weeks. Photography being my financial lifeline and creative outlet, I needed a solution. I didn’t want to risk fines for operating my studio, so I had to think creatively. With a backlog of photos but not enough for an extended period, I decided to use mannequins. I purchased several, some poseable, others static. But the mannequins’ blank heads and hands looked odd, so I began sculpting masks. I started with plain Halloween masks, adding clay, and adapted this technique for the mannequins. This approach filled nearly a year of my portfolio with images where people don’t realize there’s no real person. Even the astronaut suit was a challenge with mannequins. The series titled “Windows” was entirely mannequins, started shortly after the shutdown. This was a new skill and adaptation for me during that period.
BW: Who are your models, and where do you find them?
KJ: In the beginning, I photographed anyone, using Model Mayhem around 2009. It’s harder now, but I mostly use Facebook, even though not many people do. I often post on my Instagram when I’m traveling to see if anyone wants to shoot. Most of my models are friends or people I’ve photographed for a long time. I’m fortunate to get responses when I travel to new places. I haven’t had any horror stories, but sometimes people aren’t comfortable in front of the camera. I’m good at giving direction, but I’m always looking for different people to photograph.
BW: Can you tell the story of how you shot Nostalgia is Killing Me Lately? I consider it, along with your floating astronaut in front of the gas station, to be one of your most iconic photos.
KJ: That suit, the one in Nostalgia is Killing Me Lately, is from the Kennedy Space Center. It’s an Escape suit, used for fuel handlers, and ironically, it’s meant to walk in fire. I got it around 1964 from a guy in Chicago who sells oddities, I think his shop is called Agent Gallery. This photo was inspired by Ryan Gosling’s “Lost River.” People criticized it because Gosling directed it, but I thought it was amazing. It reminded me of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” with its neon lights and a Kubrick-like feel. He shot it in Detroit, featuring lots of abandoned places. There’s this scene with a house on fire that just stuck with me.
I tried to recreate something similar, but it was really hard to get the right permits and conditions. In 2022, I put out a call on Facebook, asking if anyone knew a fire department doing a controlled burn. A firefighter from North Carolina, who’s also a photographer, responded. She wasn’t sure what the structure would be. It ended up being an old farmhouse, which had connections to a firefighter’s ex-wife. The shoot was incredibly challenging due to the heat and smoke. The smoke would come down, reducing visibility, and I remember being thankful for paramedics nearby because I nearly passed out. It gave me a newfound respect for firefighters. Despite the difficulties, I’d love to do it again. We drove 13 hours to North Carolina for the shoot and then back to New Hampshire.
BW: Are there any other ambitious projects in your mind, like the fire photo that took seven years to realize? Is there anything that feels impossible?
KJ: Not impossible, but there are places I want to visit, like Iceland. It’s hard for me to travel right now as I take care of my mother, but it’s doable with arrangements. There’s also an island off Japan, a big bucket list item, which feels more impossible. In the 70s and 80s, they manufactured oil from the ocean there, but had to evacuate once the oil dried up. It’s now an abandoned island with huge structures like apartment buildings. Chernobyl is another place that seems impossible right now, especially with everything going on there. But that Japanese island is definitely at the top of my list.
BW: That sounds cool. I’m originally from Southern Louisiana, where there are many amazing, creepy places that would be great for your photography, like abandoned oil rigs, houses, and schools in the swamps. It’s very True Detective looking down there.
KJ: I’ve only been to Louisiana a couple of times but definitely need to return. I love the South; it’s different from up North. The structures are different, with a different vibe. Up here, it’s more farmhouses, but down there, you find massive old mansions and lots of churches.
BW: I noticed you don’t always title your pieces or lead viewers to a specific meaning, yet your work is evocative of story. How do you think about storytelling as an artist?
KJ: When I title my work, it’s usually just in the moment, for submissions or minting. I’m heavily influenced by movies, and I think of my photos as stills from a film. It’s more about a feeling than a specific message. The process is spontaneous, like capturing an image and feeling in my head. I constantly jot down ideas because they’re fleeting. I don’t usually ponder the meanings; it’s more instinctive, driven by what I read, watch, or listen to.
I have a massive notebook of ideas, and sometimes I don’t even understand my own notes later. At events, people often share their interpretations of my work. I never want to correct them, unless it’s something completely off. It’s important to let others feel their way when they look at my images. Creating is my way of communicating because I’m socially awkward and internalize a lot. It’s vital for me to connect with people through my art, as it helps me avoid feeling like a hermit and miserable.
BW: Your work has a poetic and cinematic quality, reminiscent of Gregory Crewdson, though very different. Regarding your ideation phase, how do you move from notebook ideas to actual execution?
KJ: Yes, I often hear comparisons to Gregory Crewdson. I think it’s because, like him, I focus on capturing the whole world in my shots. I used to believe I could only shoot in abandoned places, but during the pandemic, I learned to appreciate my city’s everyday settings. For instance, I recently found inspiration from a Facebook Marketplace ad showing school chairs against an old wood panel backdrop. I even contacted the seller about photographing there.
My ideation can be triggered by almost anything. I try to storyboard my ideas, sketching them out like in a film. This helps me plan more intricate scenes. For example, the floating astronaut photo was carefully planned for a specific movie set in California. I’m detail-oriented, focusing on symmetry, which is challenging outdoors, and on wardrobe, preferring vibrant, Wes Anderson-style colors and designs. My process involves a mix of spontaneous inspiration and detailed planning, from sketching and storyboarding to selecting the perfect wardrobe and location.
BW: I was surprised to learn that many of the scenes in your photos, like a bar with a jukebox, were actually built in your basement. Can you tell me more about your set design process there and the turnover of sets?
KJ: The diner was at my studio, but I did many other sets in my basement. This started after my arrest in 2014 when I was avoiding trespassing while awaiting my court date. I didn’t want to get into any more trouble, especially with people often being wary of cameras. So, I started taking self-portraits in a small room in my basement, which was only about seven feet tall. I had it fitted with plywood over the stone walls to make it look like a normal room.
I then did a monochromatic color series, where I painted everything in the room one color, including the furniture. It was a physical process; I spray-painted the furniture in my backyard and then arranged it in the room. I did about 12 colors for this series, which got good traction online. People often mistake my photos for paintings, not realizing that the set itself is painted, not the photo. I did all these elaborate setups with cardboard and paint, transforming my basement into different scenes.
I did a lot in my basement, which became pivotal during COVID and after my arrest. Initially, these situations felt like the end of the world, but they forced me to be resilient. I need a few days to freak out, then I bounce back, finding ways to make things work. If I hadn’t been arrested, I wonder if I would have a studio now or be doing what I do. That arrest jolted me out of my comfort zone.
I remember someone online criticized me during that time, saying I was just another person shooting models in abandoned places. Although it was meant to be mean, I took it as constructive criticism. It made me realize that’s all I had been doing. That was a real kick in the ass to start learning new things like building sets and expanding my skills.
BW: Your PFP series Average Creatures was another project done the hard way, which I think is far superior. Can you talk about the beginning of “Average Creatures” and your recent follow-up release?
KJ: I entered the web3 space in January 2021 and learned about PFPs. After understanding them, I wanted to do something different. That summer, my mother had a stroke, so I couldn’t travel much, but a dev team approached me about a generative project. I didn’t know how to adapt my current work to that format. It took me a few days to come up with an idea, and I thought of the masks I had been sculpting and painting.
The scale of things in web3 was a revelation for me. I sculpted small heads, about softball size, and created backgrounds on 12×12 squares. For the bodies, I used mannequins and real people, dressing them up and taking photos. The challenge was matching the lighting and shadows when generating them together. Our first test character, Boris, had a leisure suit and a vampire head, which looked surprisingly normal. That’s how we came up with “Average Creatures” – they’re mundane but unique.
The first drop had characters with everyday jobs in the metadata. The second version involved filming the heads, like puppetry, and my partner spent hours cutting them out in After Effects. It was a learning curve, as we hadn’t seen much filmed generative work. This project wouldn’t exist without the web3 space, and it’s been a lot of fun creating these characters and their stories.
BW: What’s the community like around your project?
KJ: Everyone’s cool. The first drop in March 2022 was just before the market crash, so we had a lot of flippers initially. That was new to me, as I’m used to dealing with art lovers. It was eye-opening when people started asking what’s next, suggesting I just churn out work. But those who weren’t really into the art either left or got angry, leaving behind those who get it and care. They’re the ones who enjoy collecting art and appreciate the nostalgia and stories behind the characters. I’m grateful for those who stuck around and understood what I did. I was surprised the project minted out, considering the digital nature of the space. Initially, some people said you couldn’t just mint a photo; it had to be animated or something. I almost believed them and felt like I didn’t belong. But now, I feel there’s a good future for art in this space, despite current challenges.
BW: I’m hopeful because many speculators and flippers who suddenly became excited about art in late 2020 and throughout 2021 have faded. It was odd seeing these people suddenly interested in art.
KJ: Yeah, definitely.
BW: And thank you for not animating your photos. I rarely see an animated photo that really needs to be animated.
KJ: People feel pressured to animate, often using motion LEAP programs, but it can detract from the work. There’s room for everything, and while I like some animated work, not everything needs to be flashy. I think a lot of people felt scared out of the space because of this pressure to conform. Luckily, I stuck around, as I’m not good at listening to that kind of advice.
BW: You have a fair amount of video work on your website, but I haven’t seen it minted. What are you doing with video, and are you leaning towards it more?
KJ: I’ve always been interested in video. I initially wanted to go to film school, but it was too expensive, so I studied English instead. Photography became accessible to me in college. In junior high, I used to make stop animation films and loved it. The technology wasn’t as advanced then, and I lost sight of video for a while. But with advancements like smartphones and DSLR cameras, making videos became easier.
I started making short videos to show that my sets were real, as people often thought my photos were paintings or computer-generated. In web3, 30 seconds to one-minute clips are perfect, so I’ve been more mindful about planning my video shots. I want to do more with video, like short films. I’ve been considering how to incorporate this into web3, maybe by releasing a film in pieces that come together if you collect them all. I love shooting video and definitely want to explore short films more.
BW: Personally, I can’t wait for that.
KJ: Yeah, it’s very high on my to-do list. It’s interesting that you asked.
BW: My last question, which I’ve been using a lot in recent interviews, is inspired by Brian Eno. It’s about art’s role in human culture. Every culture has adorned their world with decoration, fashion, or art, even when unnecessary, like decorating a spear that doesn’t enhance its function. So, why do people make art? What is its purpose?
KJ: That depends on who you ask, as there are many different perspectives. For me, art is the most comfortable and rewarding way to communicate. I’ve always been introverted, struggling to feel like I fit in. From a young age, I was driven to create, experiencing many frustrating years trying different mediums like drawing. After my father’s unexpected death in 2011, I found myself channeling my emotions into my work, transforming it into a narrative. This became my way of communicating with others. I believe people create art as a way to find answers, a different form of expression. For creators, there’s always more to discover, more to express. Despite the jaded view that everything’s been done, innovations like AI show that new frontiers are always emerging. Creation, in any form, is a step towards birthing something new, offering answers, and enhancing communication. That’s my take on why people make art.
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