As Others See Her


Lady Ostapeck — A Finnish–American Pictorial Pictorialist

New Yorkin Uutiset

Lady Ostapeck was born in Brooklyn in February 1918. “In fact.” she said, “to do this kooky photography you have to be born a Pisces. It’s a sensitive sign. But you can’t be sensitive existing in this world.” Her mother died a few days after she was born and most of her life was spent in New Jersey.

Her first love was dressmaking. She had artistic abilities but also liked to sew and thought that by mastering each, she could either be an illustrator or a dress designer. She studied art in high school and evening classes, but could not make a living at it. “I wasn’t good enough,” she said, “but studying art and the history of costumes eventually led me into collecting antiques. Not because I’m that smart about antiques, but I’m such a squirrel. I just love sales and antique shows and auctions. I live from rummage sale to rummage sale. Later, when I moved up here, I opened an antique shop in my garage and I called it the Orphanage because I was trying to sell all these things that were cracked, chipped, torn, and not old enough. I was trying to find homes for them. Eventually that flopped and I got stuck with all these bad antiques. But I’m glad I was stuck with them because I use them. They ooze out in all kinds of photographs.”

After finishing high school, Lady worked on New York’s fashionable 57th Street as a finisher for custom-made dresses. Then she got a job with American Photo where she was trained to do negative retouching.

“Leftover artists who didn’t make it,” she continued, “make good retouchers because you must know the face and its planes. Empathy and kindness toward the subject are the golden ingredients in retouching, as in photographing. It pleased me so when commercial photographer Peter Basch called me ‘the retoucher with a soul.’ A lens sees the subject like no human sees another. Retouching just makes the face look the way our eyes see, not the way the lens sees. A lens is a heartless monster. Everyone with a camera is a photographer, but everyone with a pencil is not a retoucher. That takes a light touch, good eyes, empathy, and the antique look. The photographs generally convey a sense of nostalgia and charm. In looking at them, one really does feel that they evoke another era.

I asked Lady what finally brought her into photography permanently and she said it was the strangest set of coincidences which all began with her moving to Fly Creek. “When I turned 40, that changed my whole life,” she said. “When I was 20, I had read a book called Life Begins at Forty, so I figured that, now, I was going to do great things. I quickly started to do everything I had always wanted to do — horseback riding, ice-skating, skiing. I almost got to fencing lessons, but I discovered that I didn’t need it anymore. I didn’t need those crutches. Then I had a part ownership in a horse in Jersey and I really got hungry for the country. I put an ad in the Rural New Yorker. ‘Lady with horse wants country place.’ An answer to that ad brought me to this house.”

Her plan was to continue her negative retouching by mail, but, mail was lost or it took too long. She lost one account after another. “It got worse and worse and I was getting older,” she continued. “Now that I look back, it’s debilitating to be poor. It just takes everything out of you. But if you’ve got to be poor, you’ve got to do it in the country. I learned how delicious dandelion greens and milkweeds can be. I learned a lot about survival and about life in general. I didn’t know before then that everything is so carefully programmed: the world, nature, this farm.”

And to all this careful programming, this spinning-out of circumstances, Lady claimed she owed her present career. ‘Well,” she said, “in 1970, I got this irresistible urge to go to the Salvation Army Thrift Shop in Utica. And, sure enough, there was this camera. It was a 5 x 7 Century view camera with a rectilinear lens. I’d never seen an old camera before. It had red Russian leather bellows and it was made of rosewood. And it had all these brass fittings and an interesting lens. And it said to me, ‘My God, will you get me out of here? I’ve been reduced from $100 to $50 today, just for you.’ Well, I had just $50 in my account for bills and things. But I bought it and brought it home and I looked at it for a long time. I couldn’t keep my hands off it. Finally, I began to take it all apart little by little and I really got to know the camera. Then I wanted to use it. It took glass plates, so I wrote to Eastman Kodak and they sent some kind of formula for coating the plates. It was like a witch’s brew and I did nothing with it. For a long time, the camera just sat there. Then somebody found that it takes a regular film holder. I bought some film, put it in, and got my son to pose. I took that picture and discovered a whole other world because after a while I started collecting old cameras and equipment and became a portrait photographer in the pictorial style.”

The rest is history. She adopted the name Lady Ostapeck (Lady because so many replies to her ad for a country place were addressed to “Lady with horse,” Ostapeck because it was her husband’s name) and started becoming well known in her local area. Word spread and people from other parts of the state came to sit for her. Ed Romney of The New Pictorialist encouraged her and wrote about her work in his magazine and she was also mentioned in an article on pictorialism by Eaton S. Lothrop, Jr. in Popular Photography (July, 1973).

It is difficult to describe her picture-taking technique, because even though it appears to be simple, there are many steps along the way.

First of all, Lady interviews the subjects, tries to fit them into a particular mood, a particular era, always carefully weaving a fantasy about them in her own mind. “I saw her,’” Lady said, pointing to the photograph of the woman in white décolletage, ““an old-fashioned face lit with wide-eyed innocence, the kind of face you used to see on calendars. She’s actually a nurse at the hospital, but in the soft hat and dress, she’s from that other time.”

Lady’s next step from the interview and the dream spinning is to develop an appropriate environment and costume for the sitter. Although she advertises, “‘Have camera will travel,” she prefers to shoot at home, at Whimsy Hill Studio, so that she can decorate the sitter and the setting.

Most of the time, Lady seats her subjects in a tiny corner that is just large enough for a small round table and a chair. The corner works well because it is bathed in natural light from two northern windows. Into this corner, she places all kinds of props: a bird cage, draperies, a table, an urn, all tacked, basted, or taped in place to create the illusion that she wishes to portray. She then searches her racks and finds the proper costume for her sitter. She tucks, pins, and adjusts until everything seems to fit the subject and the mood.

Sometimes. Lady sets her subjects in the way in which they see themselves. “For example,” she said, pointing to the photograph of a man with a violin, “‘this man is a doctor at the local hospital. As you can see, he is having a love affair with his violin. And he and the instrument, they have their note: lovely, painful, and sensuous.”