At Lisa Kereszi’s ART ’00 book signing Thursday at the Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York City, one man, upon flipping to the title page of her book and seeing the photo of a pair of doors with a brightly painted eye leading into a dark space, remarked out loud, “Oh I get it: It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.”
The reaction was surprising for Kereszi, a lecturer at the School of Art and the director of undergraduate studies in photography. Though this idiom was central in the formation of her new monograph “Fun and Games” — a book of photographs available now from Nazraeli Press — she said it was never her intention to hint at it in the placement of the title-page photograph.
The incident at the book signing is a testament to some of the defining aspects of Kereszi’s work. Kerezsi said she often does not fully realize the implications of her images and that there is a constant blurring of the line between entertainment and danger.
The body of work in “Fun and Games” spans the last 10 years, since Kereszi’s time as a graduate student at the Yale School of Art, and has evolved into a distinct perspective on escapism in its many forms. Though there are no people in her photographs, a human presence is made clear in the peculiar spaces of haunted houses, motels, fairs and other slightly tawdry entertainment venues.
“What makes Lisa’s pictures distinctive, I think, is their unsettling immediacy, a quality that is tempered by their careful attention to surface,” said Joshua Chuang, assistant curator of photographs at the Yale University Art Gallery. “In so many of her pictures, we’re brought to a place of discovery and wonder, despite the fact that we are also being shown the threadbare nature of the illusion.”
Kereszi said her initial fascination with nighttime resulted from her desire to push her boundaries.
“When I was a graduate student, in the summer of ’99, I decided I was going to do a project about night, about photographing at night,” Kereszi said. “It had something to do with fear — not as, ‘I’m afraid of the dark,’ but as part of my personality that has something about not feeling safe in my world.”
Though Kereszi initially focused on the outdoors, she soon moved almost completely to interiors, where she felt more challenged, she said.
“I wasn’t interested in people anymore but in places and details and things,” she said. “It expanded from [bars] to nightclubs, motels, movie theaters. I was interested in the places people go at night to escape reality.”
Chris Pichler, Kereszi’s publisher at Nazraeli Press, said he was specifically engaged by the implications of her empty interiors.
“When I first saw Lisa’s work, what struck me immediately was the confidence with which she photographs,” Pichler said. “It’s very rare, in my experience, to be confronted with such an unemotional, deadpan view of the kinds of loaded subjects she is drawn to. Her own confidence seems to overwhelm the subject matter, so that instead of looking at what the actual subject is, I find myself looking at the details.”
Kereszi’s own fascination with remnants and traces of what people leave behind comes partly from family: her father ran a junkyard, and her mother sold antiques. This suburban Pennsylvania family environment is evident in her work, even after she moved past using it directly as a subject.
“I came in [to Yale] doing work about my family,” Kereszi said. “Someone once said [the photographs] can still be about that same emotional state of pain. You can photograph other things and still have it metaphorically be about the same things.”
Alice Rose George, an independent photography editor and curator who met Kereszi when Kereszi was an undergraduate at Bard College, was instrumental in the formation of both of Kereszi’s monographs and has witnessed the progression of her work.
“She’s totally open,” George said. “She grew up in an unorthodox environment, which contributed to her being more open to unexpected spaces and people. These interiors and landscapes are sort of peculiar, very individualized. She looks at the peeling wall, not the finished paint job.”
Kereszi’s last book “Fantasies” was a subset of “Fun and Games” that focused on Kereszi’s photographs of strip clubs and the resurfacing of the burlesque movement. Kereszi then expanded the night theme to include “haunted houses and Coney Island and Times Square, the Pocono Mountains.”
“‘Fun and Games’ isn’t a project with a capital ‘P’ — it’s my body of work in general,” she said.
Kereszi moved to New Haven three years ago, after living in New York for nine years. Her current work focuses on exploring a different side of New Haven via the city’s quiet, hidden places.
Correction: October 20, 2009
An earlier version of this article misstated the occupation of Lisa Kereszi’s ART ’00 father. He ran a junkyard, not a junkshop.