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A photographic junkyard

(Courtesy Yale School of Art)

(Courtesy Yale School of Art)

Unwrapping a hardcover copy of her new photography book, Joe’s Junk Yard, lecturer in photography Lisa Kereszi, MFA ’00, recalls her first critiques as a graduate student in Yale’s MFA program—a time when the book was still only an uncertain amalgamation of photographs and memories. “I remember saying to the head of the department, Tod Papageorge, ‘I’m going to do a book. This is my project.’ And he said to me, ‘That’s very ambitious.’”

Joe’s Junk Yard, released October 2012, offers a depiction of the American working class that hits, both literally and figuratively, close to home for Kereszi. The book intertwines her own photographs from over the years (the first of which she took when she was just 16) with selected pages of her grandfather’s makeshift scrapbooks. In doing so, it lovingly chronicles nearly 50 years of her family’s decay and disappointment against the landscape of their slowly eroding Pennsylvania junkyard business, from which the book takes its title.

“[My earlier photos] were more documentary,” Kereszi told me. “They were very straightforward, to the point of just sort of showing the viewer what’s there.” She opens the book to a 1998 shot of her grandmother, Eloyse, and father, Joe Jr., smoking an Easter morning cigarette. “After graduate school, I started moving away from people and into making portraits of things, objects, and places…as a metaphor for something greater,” she said.
Far from pure narration, these later photographs focus in on treasures discovered amidst the junk, repurposing them to evoke loss, abandonment, and ephemerality. The death of the American dream is another persistent theme, as in one photograph of a commemorative bicentennial rug littered with change and cigarette ash. “One great piece of advice…was given to me in my critiques by Gregory Crewdson, MFA ’88, here at Yale,” Kereszi told me. His advice, she said, is that “you can take a picture of something that’s not your family, and still have it be about your family.” She points to a photograph of a rusted and kinked engine lying in the dirt, leaking oil into the earth. “It was once the heart of a vehicle,” she said. “A very powerful, useful thing.”

On Wed., Oct. 17, over a decade after Kereszi’s conversation with Papageorge, the School of Art celebrated Kereszi’s project-come-to-fruition with a book party and signing in Green Hall. The party was replete with tangy barbecue pulled pork in a copper stockpot, pickle spears, green tomato chutney, “Junkyard cookies” (think Martha Stewart-meets-Hoarders—in a delicious sort of way) and, for party favors, mechanic’s name patches.

To complete the party’s “working class, manly” vibe (as Kereszi put it), photography student Aaron Seriff-Culick, PC ’13, even volunteered to don a mechanic’s jumpsuit. “[The book party] is a great chance for the community to show how excited we are for Lisa, and how proud we are to celebrate her incredible work,” he said.

For those lucky enough to pick up a signed copy of Joe’s Junk Yard, Kereszi’s signature came with two other small personal touches: an ink stamp of the address of her family’s junkyard, and a small “J” hammered into the cover, just like the one her father and grandfather would hammer into working spare parts before selling them. It’s not so much a salute to the party’s playful theme as it is an homage to the bloodline and backyard that birthed Kereszi’s photography. They’re reminders that, in the words of Kereszi, “some things change, but not everything.”