I consider conceptual portraits as one of the most powerful genres for self-expression and setting ideas in motion.
Among the most impressive examples I’ve seen so far are the works of Boston-based Karen Jerzyk. Each photo is a thought-provoking story on its own, and says a lot about all the thinking and planning goes into each. Her “Last Days of Earth” series in particular is a gripping collection that demonstrates her mastery of the genre.
The series is a big collection of conceptual portraits exploring the “world during its last days” but I also see it as an assortment of bizarre dream worlds. It’s a deep dive into Karen’s psyche and creativity, shaped by years of connecting with her art.
The bittersweet road to haunting conceptual portraits
Karen’s portrait photography journey began in 2003 following years of strictly photographing music-related assignments like concerts, album covers and band promo shots. While she found herself “a poor artist with no direction and certainly no money for a studio” at the time, it actually worked to her advantage.
“Luckily, my lack of funds forced me to get creative and to use the world around me. I had seen a photo of a theater in an abandoned asylum via an internet search, and was immediately enamored with the image. I was obsessed with finding the location, as it was like nothing I had ever seen before. I had no clue that places like that existed. That was the wonderful start of my marriage with ‘finding cool locations.'”
Still, she felt that something was missing and “wasn’t clicking” in her photos; they were visually good, but she wasn’t really proud or satisfied with them. When her father unexpectedly passed away in 2011, it became the catalyst for the surreal imagery and emotive photography she has come to be known today. “People kept pushing therapy on me … But what I REALLY needed was to connect with my art. And I did.”
“The bittersweet thing is, the death of my father was the birth of my photography career. Suddenly, my photos displayed emotion. They displayed stories and purpose and a sense of beautiful dismay, which was a direct mirror of how I felt on the inside. I poured all of my feelings and struggles into my work. I learned how to control how I felt and funnel it all into my ideas. I finally learned how to make the connection between imagery and emotion, and for once in my life I was satisfied and proud with what I was creating.”
Elaborate scenes, complex emotions
Each photo in this big collection is a heady mix of well-crafted scenes in different locations, a lot of them in abandoned places. I especially love how Karen works with the mood of the place to tell her beautifully bizarre visual stories.
Her attention to detail — from the props and the wardrobe, to the lighting and color grading — allows her to build the connection between imagery and emotion that make her work stand out.
Karen has been among the artists that I turn to for inspiration whenever I want to add an emotive quality to my portraits. I’m sure that with this quick selection from “Last Days of Earth,” you’ll also include her to your own list!
All photos by Karen Jerzyk. Used with Creative Commons permission.