Lisa Kereszi: Shooting Burlesque Dancers, Art, and Working with Nan Goldin -NSFW

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Hey everyone! For this FS Spotlight, I’m excited to present renowned conceptual fine art photographer Lisa Kereszi. Kereszi, who started out assisting none other than Nan Goldin and currently serves as Acting Director of Undergraduate Studies in Photography at the Yale School of Art, creates stunning images that are both stark and surprisingly complex.

Kereszi’s images hang in the Whitney Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the Altoids Collection of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and she has also been featured in group shows at the Whitney Museum, the Aldrich Museum, the Bronx Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Queens Museum of Art among many others.

Fstoppers catches up with Kereszi to ask about life as an artist, working with photography great Nan Goldin, and the concepts behind her series “Fantasies” and “To Grandmother's House”.

Fstoppers: Tell me a bit about how you got your start with photography. 

Lisa Kereszi: I was always interested in it but didn’t have any idea that it could be something I would do for a living. As a kid, I had a Kodak Disc camera and would photograph obsessively at the Jersey Shore or on any trip we went on. I also set up my Barbies as if they were in action at the pool set or the McDonald’s set I had, and I’d take pictures of the staged scenes. As a teenager, I compulsively wanted to record my friends and made sure I had taken at least one picture of each of them. When I was in high school my room was plastered with new wave and indie rock posters, pages torn from magazines, and these pictures of my friends – a huge collage.

Fstoppers: Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer? Or did you start in another visual art medium?

Lisa Kereszi: No, I wanted to be a writer for the longest time, from childhood through the first two years of college. I also did the so-called “art major” program at my public high school, a course of study created by the most amazing and oddball art teacher, Claude Falcone. He addressed us by our last names for a full year, Mr. this and Miss that, to create a more formal environment in the studio. I credit him with some of my desire to be an artist. He’s gone, so I never got the chance to tell him that and show him what I am now, something that bothers me a lot.

Fstoppers: We’d love to hear a bit about your experiences assisting Nan Goldin. What was it like working with her, and how did your experiences shape you as a photographer?

Lisa Kereszi: I feel really lucky to have worked with her, and when I was in my early twenties, almost right out of college. I recall distinctly an evening in my dorm room at Bard my Senior year. I was looking at “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” and told my then-boyfriend that I wanted to work for her. And so I did, for about a year-and-a-half: first as an intern, then as a 3-4 day a week employee. Besides the studio/office duties one might expect, there was also a lot of getting her coffee and running errands, getting cash out at the ATM, picking up and returning VHS tapes, stuff like that. And this was before email, so everything was done by fax! No internet, no Amazon.com, so when Nan needed a certain song on CD for a re-editing of the “Ballad” slide show, I had to spend hours running all over town to every music store, which wasn’t so bad. I got to meet so many key people, like John Waters and one of his stars, Sharon, dealers like Matthew Marks, curators like Elisabeth Sussman and Corey Keller, book publishers like Walter Keller of Scalo. It was like another life, though, a pre-career life. Very few of those people connect the photographer I am today with that little assistant girl. I got to see one way an artist lives and creates and exists. Sometimes I think I got to see too much, but it all helped me to make decisions about the kind of artist I would want to be. Nan was often extremely generous and seductive – that made me understand why her intimate work was even possible. People wanted to be a part of the Family of Nan; she could really draw a person in. Aesthetically, I think it’s clear that she is one of my influences, especially the palette and the low-brow, tattered environment. But I sought her out in the first place because I felt a connection, so I don’t think the influence solely came from the actual working for her and being immersed in her life’s work. I was drawn to it; I wanted it.

Fstoppers: What inspires you, as an artist? How do you stay fresh and engaged?

Lisa Kereszi: I keep my eyes open, not so much to what’s going on in the photo world or art world, honestly, but to my environment. I also have been teaching seriously since 2004, and being immersed in a photo and art program has kept me learning. I feel like I have gotten several MFA’s since the 1st one because of all the research I have had to do and knowledge I have to have to pass on to my students. I know a lot more know about the medium and its history than I ever learned from anyone in school, at least the first time around. I have listened intently to the same basic lectures on the same greats (Brassai, Evans, Frank) and to the same guest artists lecturing on their own work (Larry Fink, Judith Joy Ross, even Katy Grannan) and get something new out of it every time. I do look a lot at these images from the history of photography, and I don’t think it’s stagnant to look back rather than forward. I see over and over again that the critiques of our culture made by some of the great artists (Frank, Evans, Arbus) are as relevant today as they were when the images were made. It’s as if they tried to warn us, but the American didn’t listen, and so here we are, repeating the mistakes of the past over and over again.

Fstoppers: Your photos have a very distinctive look, how to you describe your style?

Lisa Kereszi: I don’t like to think of it as “style,” really. That’s just how I “sees” (sic) it. The way I stare something down, sort of myopically, sometimes even abstractly, transforms an object or a scene into something other than what I first saw. It’s the framing, the wide lens (usually), the light, the angle. It’s also whatever that is that makes me tick to even notice something in the first place. I have feared that there is so much color work out there right now, particularly made w/ a 6x7, often of somewhat similar subject matter, that my work might get misunderstood or mistaken for something else and lumped in with much more superficial work. I think the work is actually harder to digest than it seems. There’s a bittersweet quality, or something similar that doesn’t have a word to describe it, that lies just below the surface. I think it looks easier to make and to understand than it is. So much of it is also in the editing process, in the choosing what must get left out because it is too “soft” or too obvious. A curator once told me that some of my pictures are a little obtuse. I know that is probably not a compliment, but I half took it that way.

Fstoppers: I love your series Fantasies. Can you tell us a bit about the concept behind these images.

Lisa Kereszi: Two bodies of work were both conceived and born the same night in the winter of 1999. I was a graduate student, struggling with a new project making pictures of empty interiors, particularly those related to nocturnal activities. I had recently shot dive bars and nightclubs, motels and night landscapes. A friend insisted on bringing me to Show World – to see not only the New Burlesque performance there, but also to scout the space itself as a location for possible pictures. That night I took a 35mm snapshot of Ms. Martini on pointe in her ballet slippers, head thrown back, in perfect silhouette. This moment was the beginning of the burlesque project. The stage behind her was gaudy and slick, all red and black lacquer. The walls and surfaces had bits of grime and years of smudges on them. I returned to the scene to make pictures of the rooms empty, telling a story of the clients and dancers who had passed through the spaces years before. The burlesque dancers and the go-go interiors are melded together in this book. They were made alongside one another, led parallel lives, once they branched apart in the beginning. Although the empty interiors are in a variety of strip clubs, the girls of the New Burlesque movement would most likely never perform in the kinds of joints I was shooting. (The above-mentioned Show World is an exception, because it was being repurposed and reinvented.) These two related worlds do not very often intersect, so the book is not at all documentary.

Fstoppers: As a female artist, did the energy of the locations in Fantasies effect you or your process?

Lisa Kereszi: Well, I was drawn to them so I wasn’t entirely uncomfortable, but the empty strip clubs were pretty debased places that smelled of stale beer, ashtrays and baby wipes. I was often given a limited amount of time, but I still tried to keep my feelers out and my eyes open while moving through the locations economically. The handful of clubs I visited for research while still open were pretty depressing, honestly. I hope the pictures convey that.

Fstoppers: You created these images in places structured around the male gaze. How did you choose to deal with this element?

Lisa Kereszi: There are empty glasses, empty stools and tables, inanimate objects waiting for the customers to return. I also became interested in the interior design choices, which are meant to distract from the cheap construction and cinderblock exteriors, aiding the creation of a fantasy. So many of these design choices, however, were either made so long ago that they were now out of fashion or they were often homemade and low-fi. I often concentrated on the representations of the female body on the walls. They were stand-ins for the missing dancers and crude expressions in paint of the so-called male gaze. I guess the extraction of that kind of onlooker is a big part of what made the images work. I removed everything that makes these places fun and titillating.

Fstoppers: How have people responded to this series? 

Lisa Kereszi: I think that to some in the new burlesque community it is a bit baffling. Most of the images you see of that world are very glamorous, posed and cheesecake, but that is not at all what I set out to do. I had difficulty with some of the subjects, who would not let down their guard. Those pictures are failures, even though they would be successes to another kind of photographer. However, I think there are some in that scene who are true artists themselves, who understood what I was trying to create. When I tried to sell the book at one of the Miss Exotic World contests, I sold hardly any books. There was an artist there doing commissioned sketches, and he looked through the book and said, “Oh, this is an art book.” My heart sank immediately. He was right and I agreed, but that confirmed that I would be shipping 2 boxes of books back to the East Coast the next day. It is an art book, which means it is a representation of my own depressive vision, my own experience and opinion, and not a souvenir program or cheesy calendar art. It meant a lot to me to have some of the performers tell me they connected with and understood the work. The picture that World Famous * BOB * asked for was the one of her feeding the cat at the old Exotic World ranch. In it, she is struggling to pull apart a foil bag of cat treats, and the cat is rubbing her legs. It’s not a flattering picture of her, but that was the one she wanted because the cat was killed by wild animals, and it reminded her of him. And Murray Hill, a female-to-male drag burlesque performer told me that she appreciated the work and saw that my pictures of * BOB * got to the core of something, that I saw the sadness in her that no one sees onstage. I think it’s somewhat of a lonely life for some of the women – always touring, asleep all day, up all night, even though you have hundreds of adoring fans calling out your name in the club. You are the center of attention, of sexual attention, and maybe that’s a complicated thing.

Fstoppers: What do you hope to impart upon the viewer?

Lisa Kereszi: Some of the above, what I started to get into about the inner life of a public person, especially when it comes to titillation as part of your job. I want to be clear that the women in this book are basically performance artists, not straight-up strippers. What might confuse the viewer is that the empty interiors do happen to be your average trashy strip club, the kinds of places these women would never perform in, for the most part. Since it’s an “art book” and not a documentary one, that is okay. It’s more about a poetic match-up than truth-telling.

Fstoppers: I also love your series “To Grandmother’s House.” Can you tell us a bit about these images? What were your concepts and process?

Lisa Kereszi: These are personal pictures made in my two grandmother’s homes. There is a looking back at childhood. There is also an acceptance that that time is gone, and that things will never be the same. There’s an admission that there will be an end to life, and that these homes have a history that can be read in the objects that have peopled the rooms for decades. I am a relatively new homeowner, and the thought of living somewhere and accumulating things for that long is unfathomable to me right now.

Fstoppers: What do you look for in a good photograph?

Lisa Kereszi: It has to grab my attention and make me feel something, whether it is subtle or really hits you in the gut. It’s often something you understand without the words to explain. I hate being asked that question by new students in Intro Photo classes, because there is not one answer, and it’s complex and takes time to understand. “I can’t tell you, but I will try to show you” should be a good answer for them. A good picture should gel together, sort of sing, make a visual sense not unlike a poem or a piece of music. It says what it needs to say in one frame, but still leaves enough mystery there for the viewer to bring something of themselves to understanding it. A good picture might also have two or more meanings to it, clever w/o being overly so. It should sometimes even have a rhyming, a serendipitous moment where two or more elements have something in a common, like a color, shape or surface. This creates a sense of order in the universe, makes us feel like it is not all chaos.

Fstoppers: What do you shoot with? 

Lisa Kereszi: Usually a Mamiya 7 6x7 camera on a tripod, rarely w/ flash I also sometimes use a Wista 4x5 field camera. I am now using the Canon 5d Mark ii more and more but am still shooting some film.

Fstoppers: How many assistants do you normally work with?

Lisa Kereszi: None! I find people to be distracting. I only use an assistant in class or on a commercial or editorial job in which I need support carrying things and setting up equipment, getting model releases, etc... For my art work, it would drive me crazy to have an assistant, someone to worry about. I need to be left alone, so I can be selfish and follow my own path, not worry what anyone else is doing or thinking. I know this isn’t true for everyone. During the Governors Island project, the other photographer, Andrew Moore, would bring an assistant. He was shooting 8x10 and lighting it, but he also told me that an assistant keeps him focused. It’s like an assistant makes him work and know that it’s time to take pictures. I am not like that at all.

Fstoppers: What do you think is the most important skill or quality for a fine art photographer to have? 

Lisa Kereszi: It depends on what you are trying to do. To do what Arbus did, well, you need to talk like, act like and look like Diane Arbus. To do what Evans did, you have to have the petulance, opinionated personality, and attitude of Walker Evans. I think persistence is important and the drive to not take no for an answer if you are trying to get access to a place. But I also think that it is really valuable to appear non-threatening, and fly under the radar. It’s better to not be noticed if you are trespassing or sneaking a photo, than to get caught. I see this with my students all the time. If you blend in, you get away with a lot more than if you are a 6 foot tall, handsome blond guy who everyone notices when he walks by.

Fstoppers: What’s your advice to aspiring artists?

Lisa Kereszi: The above, plus to seek out photographers you admire and try to work with them, whether it is as an intern or as their student. You won’t get anywhere without taking risks. I was so deep in credit card debt in my twenties, and then went even deeper taking out loans for grad school. But I never would have been in the position to afford that later on, if I hadn’t gone all-in in the first place. And let things happen, too, let one thing lead to the next thing. I can trace my path over the last 15 years pretty directly. Each job I had or person I met created some kind of opportunity for me to move to the next level. You just never know when the next Y in the road is coming, so it’s best to say yes to more things than you say no to.

 
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2 Comments

great job reese! 

Leah María Suárez's picture

bold and beautiful! LOVE.