As Others See Her

July 13, 2007

Lady of the Valley

Celebrated Local Photographer, a Young 89, Will Be Featured in Capitol District Exhibit

By Jim Kevlin
The Freeman’s Journal, Cooperstown

Jim Kevlin / The Freeman’s Journal

Lady Ostapeck sits for a portrait with a sampling of her portraits on the front lawn of her Fly Creek Valley home, where she’s lived and pursued her art since 1960.


She was given a Lady Ostapeck sitting as a high-school graduation present.

The young woman arrived in blue jeans, hair all over her head; a teenager like many others. No picture of aristocracy here.

But after several hours with the Otsego Lake region’s most idiosyncratic and irresistible photographer, a different personality was captured on film.
Sitting serenely in front of an ornate clock, wearing elbow length white gloves and jewel-studded tiara and choker, this young lady is certainly a noble lady, perhaps a princess, maybe even a queen.

The most common teenage expression is surly. This one’s is, well, haughty. “I ask them to look arrogant,” said Lady Ostapeck the other day, reviewing poster-size portraits that will be displayed, perhaps as many as 100, at “Somewhere in Time,” an exhibit that opens at 5 p.m., Friday, July 20, at The Photography Center of the Capital District.

The following evening at 7, the photographer will deliver a talk on her work; reception and lecture are free and open to the public. The exhibit will continue until Friday, Aug. 31, when a closing reception will coincide with Troy Night Out.

It’s Lady Ostapeck’s belief that many of her sitters come to her with self-doubt, but as she develops their personae, they flower in the realization they are the stuff of queens and kings, sea captains, gypsies, Native American princes, swashbucklers, famous beauties, explorers and intellectuals – fearless, resolute, eyes searching the far horizons.
They leave her studio, a tiny, much-used, much-loved Greek revival cottage in the Fly Creek Valley – packed like the storage room at a Hollywood studio — to self-confidently test their talents against the world.

Lady’s Photos Reveal Inner Royalty

Some of the portraits you may recognize. There’s John Ramsay of Cooperstown, a dashing Charles II. There’s a lovely image of Jane Forbes Clark.

Whether you recognize them matters not. There’s “Son of the Wolf.” There’s the Cossack. There, the Austrian count. There, Eleanor of Aquitaine, that adventurous noblewoman who went on a Crusade, may have dallied with Saladin, and kept her ancestral lands even as her marriages – first, to the King of France; then, to the King of England — fell apart.

Eleanor is Lady Ostapeck’s favorite historical personality.
As she tells it, Lady Ostapeck’s life has drama to match her unflagging flair.

The daughter of Finnish immigrants, she was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and named for her mother — “a sad name, that I don’t use” — who died when her baby daughter was five days old.

An aunt came down from Brooklyn, Conn., in that state’s northeast corner, and took her home to the Finnish farming community there, by happenstance or fate, she was narrowly saved from tragedy.

In 1919, when Baby Ostapeck was barely a year old, a farmer named Koski emerged from his barn with a hatchet and turned left down Appel Road, where he methodically butchered a half-dozen of his neighbors before hanging himself in a barn at the far end.

If he had turned right, he would have found the baby girl asleep in the Mission-style Morris chair she still relaxes in today.
According to her publicity material, “I wanted to be an artist when I was a little girl. I used to live in the Metropolitan Museum and pretend it was my own.”

She pursued a career as a photo-negative retoucher in New York City, and intended to practice her craft from afar when she moved to peaceable Otsego County in 1960, but when a packet of photos from her key client got lost in the mails, her business began to go south.

New in town, lonely, she would go on long horseback rides in the woods. One day, her fortunes at an ebb, she discovered a Corona 4 by 5 camera wrapped in velvet in a rosewood box at the Salvation Army store in Utica, and her new career began. She still uses the lens from that Corona, although on a different body.

A sitting with Lady Ostapeck goes for hours, and can go all day, as she seeks the hidden personality of her subjects.

Her home is packed with props. There’s a viking helmet. There’s a chinoise jacket. There, a cigarette holder.

By the end of the sitting, her customers are in true character, and captured on celluloid.

Lady Ostapeck vigorously pursued her calling until six years ago, when her son died. Since then, she hasn’t made a print, although she has dozens, perhaps hundreds, on back-order.

She continues to show, however, and has made quite a splash in her native Finland in recent years; she had a showing there in May 2006, and another scheduled in May 2008.

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