November 7, 1988
gives portraits a touch of the past
CREEK Lady Ostapecks 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.
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.
describes her portrait sittings as more like a séance than
photography because of the dreamlike states they create.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
subsisted primarily on dandelion greens and milkweed sprouts, which
she called the poor mans, 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.
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.
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.
customers arrive at Lady Ostapecks 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.
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. Its not photography,
she said, its 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.
customers, two-thirds of whom are women usually go away happy, and
if they dont, 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.
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.
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, isnt it great to be alive?