As Others See Her

Examining Costumes Photo

Brent Hallenbeck Photo

Lady Ostapeck looks over one of the many costumes she uses for portraits in her Fly Creek studio.

November 7, 1988

Woman gives portraits a touch of the past

By Brent Hallenbeck
Staff Writer
Oneonta Daily Star

FLY CREEK — Lady Ostapeck’s photography studio is a cramped, 8-by-8-foot room at the entrance of her “small, shabby” home, which is filled with busts, clothes and other paraphernalia normally found at garage sales or the dump.

But she thinks statues of Chopin or Beethoven with cracked necks add something to her period portraits, which attract people from all over the Northeast to live out their fantasies as a rich English fop, a blackjack player from the Old West, or a wealthy European countess.

She describes her portrait sittings as more like a séance than photography because of the dreamlike states they create.

By putting her faulty props at the right angle and touching them up a bit when the final photo is done, all that comes out is an authentic-looking person from the past within authentic-looking scenery.

Lady Ostapeck, described as “eccentric” more than once in her life, insists she is 75 years old, though she was born in 1918, just so she can avoid having the next five birthdays sneak up on her. She dropped her birth name, which she declines to divulge, because her mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage five days after giving birth to her.

She figures her birth name must be unlucky. So she goes by the name of “Lady,” drawn from a classified ad she took out in Rural New Yorker magazine in the late 1950s when she was looking for a country house, calling herself a “lady with horse.”

Then of course, there are the ghosts who help Lady Ostapeck count the time she gives to her film exposure and “take off” when a customer gets too bossy.

She said her portrait career began years after she moved from New York City in 1960 to an old farmhouse in Fly Creek. She abandoned a career as a negative retoucher for publicity photos of stars such as Greta Garbo for a career of unemployment in Otsego County.

She subsisted primarily on dandelion greens and milkweed sprouts, which she called “the poor man’s, asparagus,” and often could not scrape up enough money to pay the eight cents’ postage she needed to send out an occasional retouched negatives. Her one pleasure, she said, was collecting items found in boxes at rummage sales where she could buy all sorts of knick-knacks and shelf items for a combined price of 25 cents.

One day, she said she went to the Salvation Army in Utica and was suddenly struck with an urge to buy a camera, an early 20th-century model built for glass plates but adaptable to film. It cost her $50 of the $56 she had in her checking account.

Though she had no experience in taking pictures, only in touching them up, she almost immediately began using an artistic sense in putting period portraits together. She spent much of her youth studying the paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art “until the place was my place,” and the costumes and types of people depicted “oozed into my subconscious” and allowed her to take accurate historical photographs.

When customers arrive at Lady Ostapeck’s studio, they are asked about their heritage, their dreams, what they fantasized about as children. While customers wait in another room, she gathers together the props needed to meet their photographic wishes or what she determines to fit their personalities.

She said her sessions, which cost $40 and last anywhere from 2 to 6 hours, put her in a dreamlike state because of the intensity she has when she is putting a scene together. “It’s not photography,” she said, “it’s almost like a séance.” She takes portraits set in any time, “from Adam and Eve on.” The 16-by-22-inch photos cost the patron an additional fee.

Her customers, two-thirds of whom are women usually go away happy, and if they don’t, they usually like what they get anyway, whether a woman who posed as a seductress to appease her boyfriend or a man set up as a pirate to placate a wish.

Lady Ostapeck, of Finnish origin, has shown her photographs in over 40 different places in Finland. She has had only a few on display in the United States. She said she would like to be richer and more famous, but is not upset with her life now.

“It’s not so bad, though sometimes you get so tired of not having a little bit of money,” she said. “Sometimes it does really numb you and debilitate you. And then the sun comes out and the grass grows and you say, ‘Wow, isn’t it great to be alive?”’