As Others See Her


Lady Ostapeck and the Whispering Camera

(A liberal translation of an article written by Hannele Niemi, originally published in Askel magazine in Finnish; translation generously furnished by Juha-Matti Levasalmi)

Askel Magazine

Lady Ostapeck’s delightfully beautiful photographs are born from the artist’s own eventful and even tragic life. At almost 90 years of age, Lady explains that she has received everything she wished for. Yet there is still one more dream to come true: a small cottage close to a bus stop. And if everything were to work out perfectly, the small cottage would be in Finland.

In 1918 a baby girl was born in America to Esa and Alma (Häkkinen) Kaukinen. The baby lost her mother just five days after the birth. Esa, who was born in the Finnish Karelia, had to move to the ‘big forests’ to make a living, and Alma’s sister Selma, originally from central Finland, stepped in to take care of baby Alma.

The ordeals would continue as aunt Selma got in the way of a violent neighbor who killed several people.
Little Alma ended up in a Finnish church in Brooklyn, where Betty Jansson found her. Betty had moved to New York from Kuortane, Finland and had lost her own two daughters. She became attached to Alma and adopted her.

After multiple turns in her life Alma eventually met her father, his new family and other Finnish relatives during her first visit to Finland in the 70s.

Washerwoman’s cultural home

‘I grew up by the Hudson River, almost beneath the George Washington Bridge’, describes Lady of the initial stages of her life.

Mama Jansson brought up the girl to love Finland and offered her a cultural home — despite being just a washerwoman. They listened to Finnish music and read Finnish literature at home. Many American Finns visited them and Alma soon developed a keen ear for different dialects. ‘Mama loved the Finnish Pohjanmaa area more than anything, and portrayed the pride that is so characteristic of the Pohjanmaa people. ‘She could not have developed a double chin as she always held her head up so high’, says Lady with a grin.

Alma hated her name, and for a reason: ‘All Almas are unhappy, just think of Mrs. Kuula!’

Her last name was to change first, though, as she married a Ukrainian man. Her husband left her, but the last name and their son Bruce remained. ‘Alma’ changed to ‘Lady’ when she moved 400 km north of New York City to the village of Fly Creek.

She had placed an ad in a paper looking for a farm and described herself as ‘Lady with a Horse’. For a long time now her name has been printed as ‘Lady Ostapeck’ even on her passport.

Fly Creek, the landscape for Lady’s soul is located south of Utica, close to Cooperstown in the state of New York. There were only 350 residents when Lady moved there. Nowadays Fly Creek is a highly desirable residential area with Lady as its celebrity.

One gets what one needs

As a young girl, Lady dreamed of a career in the arts and clothing design. She worked on 57th Street putting finishing touches to custom-tailored clothes. To quench her thirst for the arts, she would wonder around the Metropolitan Museum of Arts for hours. Eventually she got a position at the American Photo retouching photographic films.

Lady understands that all along she has been guided in the right direction. ‘You get what you need, nothing more’, she says and continues to explain that she has lived a blessed life and she is grateful for each and every day of it.

In Fly Creek she finally got the horse that she had dreamed of, resting and regaining strength after all the hard years of working.

‘Being this old, I can finally laugh at many things such as my adventures in love that I used to cry about for years in the past.

Life in the countryside transformed the 40-year-old Lady. ‘It was as if I died and was given a new soul. Even though it was twenty below outside, I was absorbing the warmth and strength from the transition.

Retouching film out in the country did not work out as all customers were in the City. Yet being poor was easier in Fly Creek than back in the City. Lady was able to live her dream in the countryside: ski, skate and go from one flea market to another.

‘Take me away from here’

The things that she found at the flea markets would later be used as settings for the photo shoots. The change in profession came about when she in 1970 found a camera at the Salvation Army flea market in Utica — she had never seen anything so beautiful.

‘Take me away from here’, whispered the camera, the price of which had just been conveniently reduced to half. The boxy camera had no shutter, just the lens and a place for the film to be loaded in. Lady would release the soul of the camera by removing an old cap of a perfume bottle that acted as the lens cover for twenty seconds.

She started photographing her son Bruce. Slowly she developed herself into a portrait photographer whose style is described as pictorialism. Just like her role model Julia Margaret Cameron who also got into photography at a mature age, Lady is fascinated by fantasy.

‘Both of us are kind of silly and our pictures show signs of living… fingerprints, scratches. Some of my pictures are even a little bit out of focus, but they always have a soul. There is nothing in the Bible saying that one needs to take sharp pictures.’

Before the actual photo shoot Lady gets acquainted with the subject thoroughly. She engages the customers to talk about their childhood and dreams. ‘Women in particular want to look as beautiful as possible in pictures. Nowadays everyone is beautiful in my eyes. At times when I was younger, I let bitterness and hate blur my vision.’

The camera becomes too heavy

After her son Bruce died of cancer five years ago at the age of 60, Lady became depressed. She has not been able to make photographs since then.
During her 2006 visit to Finland she sighed and explained that she does not have the strength to carry a camera anymore. ‘There is one in every corner of my home, and I hope that I will find the spark when I return there and start taking pictures again.’

Lady visits Finland every other year. During her first visit Lady brought greetings from her late stepsister to her relatives, and found hundreds of relatives of her own whom she now keeps in touch with regularly.
Lady is recognized in Finland as a unique artist, and her work has been displayed around the country and around the world. She is also a sought-after lecturer.

Lady admires many things about Finland: heart-breaking beauty of the nature, conscientiousness and thriftiness of the people; the way the small country has in recent years risen to the top of the world …

‘But why on earth you are not satisfied? And why try to be so American? It is the Americans who are losing their heart and soul to money and the rush. Think of what they did to the native people there - and how calmly the native people took it all. The native people know something that the rest of us don’t, but they will not tell us.’

Is there a little cottage waiting for Lady somewhere?

Lady is astonished by people’s perception of their own greatness. ‘America in particular threatens everyone. Yet a person is so small, maybe history will teach us something.’

‘At this age I should know how to simplify my life. I am trying to get rid of my things all the time’, Lady says with a smile.

For a long time she dreamed about moving to Finland, but now thinks that she has become too old for that, and that Finland is regrettably expensive. She would not mind a small cottage of her own here, though.
‘Maybe that dream could still come true. One just has to be patient and let things fall into their place.

‘I like to visit Finland in the spring. Then the leaves are small in the trees and everything is so innocent, whereas the summer rolls in kind of weary. And the spring is still a low season for airfares, Lady acknowledges the realities of life with a grin on her face.

During her visits to Finland Lady typically visits the Valamo Monastery where she always goes to the church and lights a taper in memory of her son Bruce. The Orthodox religion interests her a lot despite that fact that she is Lutheran.

In America she prefers to attend church at the Jordanville Monastery. ‘I do not go to the Lutheran Church of Fly Creek often. I have a direct line to God anyhow, for example in the woods. I feel that I am filled with faith, hope and love.’

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