They might look like dreamscapes from the love child of Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam, but the photography of Karen Jerzyk is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
The childhood of Karen Jerzyk practically reads like a script of a film she adored as a kid, where outcast children find their true calling. When she was young, Jerzyk barely owned Barbie dolls, but the few she had went under the knife, “because I ended up cutting off their hair or burning them.”
At nine, she and her friends explored dark wooded areas near her hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire, where she still lives today. They found an abandoned shack, thick dust coating antique furniture. “It was like I was stepping back in time,” she recalls. “I loved it.”
She wasn’t into cartoons, but instead watched Unsolved Mysteries on TV, and her favorite films were Labyrinth, The Goonies and Edward Scissorhands. She could relate to Johnny Depp’s portrayal of a loner whose differences push him to the margins of society. “He was in a place where he couldn’t find anyone to connect with, and I could relate to that,” Jerzyk says.
Today, Jerzyk’s photography reflects that out-there perspective removed from what the mainstream considers normal. Her photos are far from staid. Often shot in abandoned homes, her photos bend reality to create surreal atmospheres that lean into fantasy and horror.
One photo shows two men with glowing eyes in a scabby room, with one guy levitating on a rocking chair, and two TV sets displaying static beside them. They could be monsters, aliens, villains or maybe even superheroes. It’s up to us to decide their origin stories, but Jerzyk provokes an emotion in us that says, “I’ve never seen this before and I want more!”
Another photo (featured at the top of this article) will play with height and space, as two women stand by an archway into a room. One model stretches many feet higher than the other, an illusion that Jerzyk creates with hidden stilts or stools. The tall woman’s dress looks suspended behind her, and paper butterflies held by thin wires dot the ethereal scene.
Precocious children play a role in her photos, too, with witchlike women hovering over a child’s bed or a kid holding the hand of some goatish creature.
“I want people to look at my photos for more than five seconds, whether they like it or dislike it,” Jerzyk, still a Manchester resident, says. “These aren’t photos you just pass by.”
She isn’t being self-promotional. When I first surveyed her photography, I was practically immovable trying to absorb all the details in her work. From the lighting to the angles to the backdrop, the photos pulled me in and didn’t let go. Some scenes freaked me out. Some made me wonder, “What’s going on here?” Others got me curious how the images were composed.
All great art is asking us to pay attention. And Jerzyk’s photos do exactly that, with flair.
Karen Jerzyk wasn’t always capturing such fantastical images. She began her photography career in earnest, shooting live bands that came to town, such as Aerosmith and KISS. Her photos peppered her music blog, which began to wind down in 2011.
When her father died, she felt “empty and a heaviness and was incredibly scared.” What his passing did to her work was something she didn’t expect: “I had all these emotions bottled up and started to use photography as therapy. Maybe that’s why I got into shooting nudes quite a lot early on — to show the human body in its most raw form, maybe like the raw pain I was feeling.”
Her work drew upon dark undertones and scenarios soon after, but Jerzyk is quick to point out two key influences: “Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam. I love them… Gilliam used these wide angles I liked, and I would practically drool watching his movies. And with Burton, I admired his use of color and his quirkiness.”
A Karen Jerzyk photo isn’t complete without the appropriate environment. In her amateur days, Jerzyk would position her model near alleyways, “an idea that now makes me cringe,” she admits. These days, abandoned hospitals or homes emanate that ideal aesthetic of creepy and barebones, allowing the bleakness of her work to blend nicely with the setting.
“On one hand these buildings were time capsules of another era, but also blank slates that I wanted to work with,” she says.
She’s even willing to risk jail for her art. Jerzyk was arrested one time for trespassing on a New Hampshire home for a shoot, “but it was totally worth it,” she adds.
For many of her photos, Jerzyk wants to create a dreamy atmosphere that can’t always be crafted so easily in photos, as opposed to more CGI-heavy art. She isn’t a fan of Photoshop or special effects. Karen Jerzyk prefers to play with what she’s been given to reveal the emotions she wants to convey. That’s why the window light in some photos is overexposed, not allowing the viewer to see outside the windows in the image.
“If you saw a tree or car outside that window, it would ruin what I want to do with that photo,” she explains. “With that blinding light from the window, there’s that surreal feeling, and it makes you wonder if there’s a spacecraft outside, if the people in the photo are from another world.”
The ambitious artist is looking to extend her creativity beyond what she’s been doing for the past decade. Lately she’s been experimenting with crafting scenes out of cardboard and shooting characters and their relationships.
“Also, I want to get into movies,” she declares, “whether writing a script or on the more visual sides of things.”
If there’s any budding photographer ripe to make the move to cinema, it’s Karen Jerzyk. Her images already feel like mini films. Each one transports you to a planet mirroring our own but shaded with enough eye-catching differences to draw you deeper into the frame.