As Others See Her


The Pictorial Portraitist

By Jane S. Johngren

If after browsing through the Smith-Telfer collection of old photographs at Fenimore House you rushed home to dust off your camera, viewing the group of portraits by Lady Ostapeck now on display at the National Commercial Bank and Trust Company will inspire you to call for a sitting at the first opportunity.

Most people, I suspect, have at some time in their lives imagined, even wished, themselves to be of another time, perhaps another country or a different profession. Certainly there are parts of our personalities, which remain hidden from our friends, even our families — secret desires, dreams, fantasies. In short, there is a romantic, fanciful strain in even the most realistic and pragmatic of us, and there are few acceptable ways to express it. Lady Ostapeck’s Whimsy Hill Studio in Fly Creek offers one.

Let me say before going further that I have formally met this unique artist only once-five years ago-- and although I have read bits and pieces of news about her since that time, and seen her at many an auction and flea market, I have not interviewed her nor visited her studio. Friends who have been photographed by her call the process, simply, “an experience,” and it is something I mean to pursue. This, then, is the first installment of what I hope will eventually be a more in-depth report.

The current display at The Bank is entitled “The Men in My Life,” and it is made all the more enjoyable, I suppose, by the fact that some of the subjects are friends of mine as well. The treatments they are given are as varied as they are unexpected. This is a photographer who gets right to the essence of the individual, a photographer with “soul,” as she puts it, and if the person she portrays is not exactly the one we see every day, never is the setting incongruous or inappropriate.

A good example is her study of “Jesse James.” aka Carter Morris. To be sure, it takes a certain kind of imagination to see the proprietor of a gas company as defiant outlaw, but when the props are assembled it all seems perfectly natural. The same can be said for Dr. Bruce Buckley’s “lago,” or for Lady’s portrait of ‘The Gypsy,” as posed by former Cooperstown physician Robert Henretig. The artist’s philosophy seems summed up by her brief note to this picture: “‘who cares if he is a doctor; he in now a gypsy.”

In other captions, Lady’s obvious preference for the romantic over the more prosaic is evident. We see “‘The Gambler or, if you wish, Mr. Hubbell, the baker of Cooperstown,” and “Sir William Wallace of Edinburgh, or if you wish, Lavinder Wallace of Cooperstown.”

Some of the portraits are more “straight,” yet still conceived in what would be referred to as an “old-fashioned” way, as a picture would have been staged and painted 200 years ago. Here too we see the fruits of many hours spent at auctions and flea markets: the draperies, the hats and ruffled shirts, the candlesticks, statues, paintings, even a small globe. These are ancestral portraits, which show the man in the surroundings, the trappings, of his profession: a brooding. Schubertian Charles Schneider, conductor of the Catskill Symphony: the kindly old general practitioner, Dr. Phelps: Wendell Tripp of the New York State Historical Association: Tom Malone, proprietor of the Hotel Pratt. Even the pictures of flutist Harvey Sollberger and guitarist Ron Soodalter are more an artistic view of the public man than a study of a hidden or different identity.

Aesthetically pleasing and fun though they are, it seems to me that Lady Ostapeck’s portraits offer far more insight than may first be apparent: at least several of the pictures struck me in that way. Whether or not this is because I happen to know the subjects I am not sure. Perhaps it also reflects the fact that Lady seems to have captured an aspect of the individual I have long felt to be essential, though somewhat obscured. I refer to the portraits of Paul Kellogg (“Young Man at Cannes”) and of Peter Macris, Hoffmann-esque director of the Glimmerglass Opera Theatre. I will be no more specific than that, but you could say that these two are my favorite pictures in the exhibit. In any event, the display deserves more than a passing glance. It is a treat to see so many Ostapeck works exhibited in a single location, and a local one at that.

As a closing note, I feel that thanks are due the National Commercial Bank for providing space for the display, Such locations are often overlooked, and despite the fact that the lighting is less than ideal for glassed pictures, a start has been made. It is to be hoped that the Ostapeck exhibit is the first of many.

Jane S. Johngren is a free-lance writer living in Hartwick.