Photographer Karen Jerzyk turned abandoned spaces into dark fairy tales after the death of her father. After getting into trouble with that series, she created Colors, a series of fantasy scenes photographed in rooms dominated by a single color.
“Back in 2014, I had gotten arrested for trespassing — an ‘activity’ I would often partake in as most of my photos are set in a ‘decayed’ scene,” Jerzyk tells PetaPixel. “I was scared and stressed out. I instantly became the victim of bullying and harassment [on the Internet].”
“The comment that deeply resonated with me was one that stated ‘maybe she will finally stop taking photos.’ I had a couple of months to wait and lay low before my court date, but I wanted to show people that I don’t just stop doing something when things go bad.”
So, Jerzyk cleaned out her basement and shot self-portraits, which she could post to show that she was not out of the photography game.
Fast forward to April 2016, and Jerzyk’s mother gave her a final warning to get rid of the broken TV that had been in the driveway all winter. She stared in dismay at the 80s vintage beauty when she noticed a can of blue spray paint behind it.
“It would be cool to paint the entire thing blue. But then what?”
Jerzyk remembers scratching her head as she pondered the scene.
“Aesthetically, that’s weird and doesn’t really match anything. Well, what if I painted other props blue? What if I painted the furniture blue? What if I painted the whole damn room blue?! So, off I went to buy one of those high-powered paint guns and the rest is history.”
Blue was the first in the series Colors that she did.
“From April 2016 to August 2016, I spent well over 1,000 hours designing entire rooms, painting them, and tearing them down for the next.”
Jerzyk soon found herself working through the heat of summer and taking five showers a day to wash the “disgusting sweatiness off me from working in the tiny space.” It was hard physical work from moving the furniture outside to paint, to wiring up skeletons to nailing props on the walls.
“I tried to do Colors as close to a spectrum as possible, so they’re really meant to be in the order of color, if that makes sense. In a gradient from light to dark,” says Jerzyk. There are 11 artworks in the Colors series. She did not want them to be clichéd as in red for anger, green for envy, etc. In fact, she did the opposite of what people would assume from each color.
Green took Jerzyk the longest time to make taking 15 hours just to set it up. It made her sweat the most literally and figuratively, as she could not think of the ideas and had to make them up as she went along, but ultimately it ended up aesthetically being one of her two favorites, the other being pink.
Jerzyk added the prosthetic arm and leg brace, as they were the only two props available, to Green at the last minute as she felt it made the model look like she was partly made of wood. Adding branches and leaves made the room look bigger but it also gave the feeling of claustrophobia as if things were closing in on the models. It seemed like an “old hospital room with branches coming in on the patient.”
Pink was another artwork that Jerzyk had trouble figuring out. She had two headless mannequins lying around and put an old record horn on one and had the other have flowers and vines exploding out of the neck. The idea was to make it look modern and surreal.
The female model appears twice in Pink. She was shot separately and then composited. The little girl riding the rocking horse was so young that the whole scene would freak her out. So she was shot separately while she watched the movie Frozen on an iPhone that was hidden in the set. “Then I just used the clone tool in Photoshop and it took me 5 minutes [that is fast] to put them all in the same single shot together,” explains Jerzyk.
Orange has about 15 images composited together.
“I had to flip a 6-foot wig all over the room over and over again, then take the photo of the guy in the chair, then him dressed as a woman with the smoke bomb behind the ironing board,” recollects Jerzyk.
Jerzyk usually finds her models on Facebook, although she does use professional models that in turn recommend her to their friends. For the Colors series a few of the models had earlier commissioned her for photos. A lot of friends let her use their children as models and the kids love it if they get the chance to put on makeup and wear costumes. But the easiest casting call was for Red where she used her mother and two of her kittens.
“Admittedly I know next to nothing when it comes to Photoshop,” Jerzyk readily admits. “ I’m embarrassed to say, I just started using Lightroom again about four months ago. I had tried it years ago on an old computer and it didn’t run smoothly, then I got discouraged and gave up.”
“Most of the effects I do are practical, and I try to do everything in camera as I shoot, so I have the least amount of Photoshop work to do. I really only know how to do minor color adjustments and compositing photos together. Lately, I’ve been doing the coloring in Lightroom, then opening the photo in Photoshop to do any minor tweaks, so yeah, probably about 20-30 minutes each photo.”
Jerzyk uses available light although may bring in tiny portable lights, which may be colored. With Colors she used many clamp lights from Walmart. She went that small, as the room was only 7×7 feet and she had to hide lights everywhere to suppress the shadows.
“I shoot in both [RAW and JPG], just because I’m always paranoid and for some strange reason think it’s safer to shoot in both ha-ha. When I wasn’t using Lightroom, I would almost always shoot just jpg. Now, I shoot both, do color correcting in Lightroom, export it to raw, edit in Photoshop, and save it as jpg.”
Jersyk wants her images to be read like a book. She splits the image into at least three sectors. There has to be something happening on the left, the center and the right. Sometimes the three sections go together and sometimes they do not. She does not necessarily have a theme or story but jots down ideas and puts together what seems aesthetically right to her.
“I really just want people to be able to look at my images for more than 5 seconds. I don’t want them to look and dismiss them—I want the viewer to be grabbed in some way, for some reason personal to them. I love hearing what people think is going on in my photos. Sometimes I actually learn more about my own work by hearing what other people have to say.”
Jerzyk’s earlier portraits were shot in cool locations but she wasn’t making any connection with a meaning or story to the imagery. “That changed after my father died,” says Jerzyk. “I had so much I wanted to talk about, and no one to talk to, so I poured all of my thoughts and feelings into my photos.” All she wants is for her photos to “evoke thought and emotion” in the viewer and maybe in a colorful way.
About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him via email here.
Image credits: All photos © Karen Jerzyk and used with permission
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