A FinnishAmerican Pictorial Pictorialist
was born in Brooklyn in February 1918. In fact. she
said, to do this kooky photography you have to be born a Pisces.
Its a sensitive sign. But you cant 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 wasnt
good enough, she said, but studying art and the history
of costumes eventually led me into collecting antiques. Not because
Im that smart about antiques, but Im 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 Im
glad I was stuck with them because I use them. They ooze out in
all kinds of photographs.
high school, Lady worked on New Yorks 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.
artists who didnt 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 didnt need
it anymore. I didnt 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
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, its debilitating to be poor. It
just takes everything out of you. But if youve got to be poor,
youve 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 didnt 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. Id 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? Ive 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 couldnt 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 witchs 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
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 husbands 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. Shes actually a nurse at the
hospital, but in the soft hat and dress, shes from that other
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.
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