The Lonely Astronaut
Inside the Cold and Colorful World of Karen Jerzyk
Karen Jerzyk, a photographer based in Manchester, N.H., started taking photos to memorialize her experiences at concerts. This led to photo passes and a growing portfolio. Then, after seven years of music photography, a friend encouraged her to start taking portrait shots.
“I realized that was more what I wanted to do because I could have control of the environment and the image,” Jerzyk says, “whereas it’s way different going to a concert and just taking a picture of someone on stage playing.”
In 2011, Jerzyk’s father died unexpectedly at the age of 63, and during the subsequent period of mourning and reflection she found in photography a way to make sense of his death. Rather than withdrawing, the experience pushed Jerzyk to deepen the psychological content of her images. Her work, she says, became more “emotional” and about telling stories.
The sense of an existing narrative beyond the image is a critical element in making her photographs compelling. Much of her inspiration comes from movies, and directors such as Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and Wes Anderson. Beyond that, she admits she isn’t afraid to be inspired by other visual artists, as well, “because that gives me a level of what I can achieve. Not copying, but just like, wow, like I can do this with a camera? I had no clue.”
In preparation for my interview with Jerzyk, I browsed her website and Instagram page. At first glance, I noticed a recurring theme in her work: She focuses on solitary individuals set against striking and colorful, yet abandoned backgrounds.
Jerzyk became intrigued by remote locations because they make everything else in the image interesting. Some of her most recent work includes an astronaut posed in front of luminous and lonely backdrops. To enact such otherworldly scenes, Jerzyk purchased a real space suit on eBay.
“I wanted to make [the series] look very desolate,” she says, “but I wanted to almost have the feel as though an astronaut comes back 1,000 years from now and Earth has been evacuated. It’s almost like the astronaut is an alien.”
One might assume that the astronaut is a male, but Jerzyk says she mostly used female models in that shoot. She says she is increasingly incorporating more diversity and inclusivity in her work. “Can I do better? Definitely. But the astronaut, again, it’s like you don’t know if it’s male or female. You don’t know any of the background. So, anyone at any age, any race, gender … they can picture themselves in that.”
You can purchase Jerzyk’s prints at Hive & Forge, located at Mill No. 5 in Lowell — there is also a Salem, Mass., location. She feels honored and lucky to be able to make a living by selling her photos, even during a pandemic.
“I really appreciate everyone that buys prints. I don’t think it’ll ever get old; I do get excited about it. I mean, my self-esteem is usually pretty so-so [and] I’m always questioning myself, so the fact that someone would spend their hard-earned money on something I created really means a lot to me.”
Jerzyk dreams of one day shooting for magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, but realizes that luck and getting the right person to notice your work plays a significant role. She also notes the difficulties of working in a male-dominated industry and not seeing a lot of the work she prefers in mainstream publications, but remains hopeful nonetheless. Still, she says, “It sounds cliche, but there really is no substitute for working hard and sacrificing.”
Jerzyk is hoping to publish a photo book in 2021. She has been asked often at events if she has a print collection of her work and has decided that now is the time. Until the book is released, you’ll have to browse her prints at Hive & Forge or visit her website, KarenJerzykPhoto.zenfolio.com.
Hive & Forge
Lowell and Salem, Mass.