Issue 3

︎Through Line︎Lisa Kereszi︎Through Line︎Lisa Kereszi

Empty Sign with Arrow, Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania, 2005.

Through Line

Lisa Kereszi

What is it about an empty billboard? And an arrow? And the two of them together, screaming Look at me and my emptiness, fill the space, fill the void. Your ad here! Photography sometimes feels more like fishing than hunting: Watching, waiting, sitting, staring. Sometimes with a lure, sometimes with a net. 

Late Winter/early Spring of 2005. I am on a travel magazine assignment to photograph points along a budget road trip route due west of New York City in the Pocono Mountains. Hailing from Southeastern Pennsylvania, my family would visit up there when I was a child—as well as my parents and their parents before me—and I recognize the names on the signs I pass once again, but about 25 years later: Delaware Water Gap, Stroudsburg, Mt. Airy Lodge, Lake Wallenpaupack, Claws and Paws! Am I traversing the same exact roads as an adult? I like to imagine this is the case.

Setting: A wooded, two-lane country road, the kind that I once read is more dangerous than the engineered highway. Spotted: A telephone pole, with block letters spray-painted SERENDIPITY. I slow down, go to turn around to double back, finding a muddy, desolate turn-off. And there’s SAD ROBERT painted on a cliff’s face, an elegy, I suppose, to the rotted corpse of a cow below. A cow that somehow made it to this ill-fated dirt pull-off in the woods, no farmland in sight, the cliffside a giant grave marker for old Bessie, or for sad, sad, dead Robert.

Serendipity Telephone Pole, Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania, 2005.

Dead Cow and Graffiti Cliff, Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania, 2005.

Already significantly creeped out and primed for anything to happen, I go back to the serendipity pole, and suddenly see the dead deer by the side of the road, its fate the intersection of the poor thing’s body and a speeding car. The animal’s remains came to be all nested in this straw-like dead grass, its tan fur perfectly camouflaged. Together, these visual elements come into focus in an expert visual rhyme. All of it crowned by the elephant in the room: A red and white cross, a roadside memorial to a loved one, a human mammal, somehow also killed at this exact same spot.

Deer with Memorial Cross, Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania, 2005.

Late Winter/early Spring 2022. Our brains are always trying to create order from the first moments. A newborn’s eyes look for patterns in a human face. Last breaths are taken with a search for the meaning of life, and a wish for an eternal one in heaven. Such it is with art—specifically photography—a medium that, by design, seeks to make visual sense of things by putting four corners and four borders around the visible world. That decisive moment (Images à la Sauvette, actually) coined by Henri Cartier-Bresson, is more than just the aesthetic convergence of line and form, and time and space; it is also a psychic transformation of the chaotic world into some harmonious, beautiful order. 

Though sometimes, creepily so. That is where serendipity comes in. More than coincidence, the serendipitous moment feels, well… fated, somehow, even to those of us who do not believe in greater powers than ye. What Garry Winogrand described as his reason for making pictures (“I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs”) is maybe also a desire to create an order. To contain the world’s movements, and to create relationships in the intersecting lives of strangers. 

Together, these visual elements come into focus in an expert visual rhyme.︎Together, these visual elements come into focus in an expert visual rhyme.︎

Already primed for déjà vu, at another blip down the road I come across a fellow predator, but in the form of a big, half-sunken, plastic beast, out behind an abandoned sports bar for the Winter. First lured into the gravel lot by the hand-painted signage out front (which turns out to not be quite anything), I swing my station wagon around to move on, and whoomp, there it is. I am rewarded (by the universe) with this thing, a sinking (or surfacing?) fake white shark in a meandering, cold, cold, grey lake.

Plastic Shark in Lake, Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania, 2005.

In the days that follow, I lose my voice, explaining myself in scratchy sounds, straining to be understood on the Motel 6 desk phone. I remember something about movie posters. And carnival glass. I take a photo of the Rolling Stones album, Sticky Fingers, adorned with a palm frond cross, and think of how my mom scratched the word filth into that album cover when I was a kid, thus only making me want to see what was inside even more.

I remember the diner, the scene of these plated leftovers, on the placemat, in the booth. Today this picture stands out to me, not just because of my old teacher, Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places meal pictures, but also for the woman with the long hair in the next booth over. Somehow, I think I “recognize” her from an image by fellow photographer Curran Hatleberg: His burger joint picture, the one of the girl with the band-aid. But that photo hadn’t been made yet in 2005, so I couldn’t have seen it first back then. I surmise that we both, as photographers, were reacting to the William Eggleston picture of the girl with the red hair in the light at the snack bar. Shore thought so, too, because that pairing of photos is not just in my own slide lecture on the subject of influence, but also in his new memoir on the craft of photography, Modern Instances. This is proof of the hive mind of photography! This interweaving of subject matter exists in the “ongoing moment”—that writer Geoff Dyer spoke of in his book of essays of the same name—rather than that old-fashioned, decisive one we already knew about. To take it a step further, my diner patron’s hair is straw-colored, like the dead grass along the roadside, and like the dead deer laid out on it. This is serendipity, photo-nerd-style. Something bigger than ourselves shows up again and again in images. Sometimes as visual rhyme, alone or in a series of stanzas. Color, shape, form, line, repeating in otherwise unrelated pictures. And work made by different photographers at different times and places (in this case, three) can touch the same nerve.

Leftovers at Diner, Pocono Mountains, Hawley, Pennsylvania, 2005.

Is there something “responsible” for putting me there in the right place, right time, camera loaded, and able to quickly take note, focus, and press the shutter? 

Is it serendipity? For putting that line cook there in that diner, who told me not to take her picture, because she was “in witness protection,” and me, only after I left, making the connection about who she was? (If my guess was right, she had ratted on her girlfriend for a string of murders; this girlfriend was finally picked up at a bar that my dad hung out at on more than one occasion. This bar was somehow right next door to an artist colony I would once stay at, 12 years ago.) Serendipity? Is that what made me take that wrong turn, or that right one, that made me end up here?  

Line Cook at Diner, Pocono Mountains, Hawley, Pennsylvania, 2005. 

What brought me here in the first place? Am I the chicken or the egg? 

There’s the serendipity of my great-grandmother, Anna, coming here, all alone, by herself, at 16, and meeting George, who came with his entire family. For all I know, my grandfather was conceived in Mount Pocono. I’m connected to this place and these people, though separated by time and space. Pictures connect the viewer through time and space with the photographer. Or maybe all this coincidence is making me a victim of having something like pareidolia—seeing faces in patterns—when no order is really there.

Something bigger than ourselves shows up again and again in images.︎

Thinking back to that cold week when I made these pictures, I conflated all my trips to that part of the world—the gateway to the Pennsylvania rust belt, next to where my ancestors had settled in the Lehigh Valley. Was it this road trip in 2005 that I went to photograph the heart-shaped hot tubs (no, it was not), and which time was it that I saw Lincoln’s blood on a pillowcase, spirited away by his doctor and somehow ending up here, in a tiny regional “museum”? And which time was it that I lost the directions, but somehow found my way down a long maze of driveways and bumpy dirt roads to the gentleman farmer photographer’s homestead, deep in the valley amid lush green soybean fields? (Not sure…) Was it this time, or the trip to Nonie’s funeral when I forgot to pack black dress pants and had to wear jeans—or that cousin’s wedding, the marriage already on its way to becoming unraveled? (Decidedly no.) Which was the time I raced south through a Western-like, scraggy landscape to get to the hospital when Mom Mom started her decline? The time when that girl rear-ended me a block away from where my grandfather grew up? Where he had walked by St. Michael’s cemetery, where Walker Evans took the famous photo of the cross, the workers’ rowhomes, and the steel stacks beyond? (It felt like it was this trip, but it was later.) I really have trouble picking it all apart now, these threads that are connected through me, like synapses in a brain.

All flattened together is my psychic memory of this place, where we used to go for mountain weekends, where my mom did, too, going fishing and picking fossils with her dad, next to the coal mine and steel mill towns where all those ancestors settled over a hundred years ago. We came then for leisure, but first for escape. 

Claw Machine: Play Till You Win, Pocono Mountains, Pennsylvania, 2005. 

Push the button, play ’til you win, maybe the claw machine won’t take all your money.

Lisa Kereszi was appointed Lecturer in photography at Yale in 2004, Critic and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Art in 2013, and Senior Critic in 2019. She graduated from Bard College with a B.A. in photography and a minor in literature/creative writing in 1995, and in 2000 she received an M.F.A. in photography from the Yale School of Art. Her work is in many private and public collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New Museum of Contemporary Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Yale University Art Gallery, among others. She is represented by Yancey Richardson Gallery in New York, where she had several solo shows, most recently in 2019. She has several books in print, including the 2004 Governors Island exhibition catalog, 2008’s Fantasies, 2009’s Fun and Games, 2012’s Joe’s Junk Yard, 2014’s The More I Learn About Women, with three upcoming photo books about family, objects, and mourning due out in 2023/24.