Divine inspiration or divine intervention - decide for yourself after viewing the you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it images in "Vie Apres Mort," (Life After Death), the exhibit of black and white reportage photography by Jane Grecsek. The artist specializes in the reportage, which originated in the 1800s. It is a style of photography, popular among wedding photographers, that captures unposed subjects exactly as they appear in a moment of time, using ever-changing natural light, often resulting in a sense of motion caused by blurring moving subjects.
An opening reception for "Vie Apres Mort," the artist's first-ever show, takes place at Nest, the antiques and design store in Hopewell on the second floor of the Tomato Factory Antique Centers, on Friday, September 23. The exhibit features nearly life-size (54" x 36") silver gelatin photographs that capture the fine line between life and death - the result of a photo shoot Grecsek gave as a graduation gift to a recent Princeton University graduate, Dawn Leaness, spokesperson for a sorority for which Grecsek photographs events.
Leaness, a roommate to President Bush's daughter, Lauren, at Princeton, posed one sultry summer day in Princeton Cemetery, chosen for its secluded location. Wearing the antique French haute couture dresses the photographer collects, the fashion-style shoot moved gradually from the front of the cemetery toward the oldest, more ethereal section. "In the newer cemetery, it was more of a commercial shoot - a little more staged. Those turned out as fabulous fashion shots, the clothes looked wonderful, and Dawn had great moves," Grecsek says. "But as we moved to the older part, she never bothered with me; she simply moved toward the crosses and cement monuments almost as if I weren't there."
When the photo developer called saying, "You have to get in here, you won't believe what you've got," Grecsek knew she had must have captured something special. Exactly what she captured, however, has to be experienced firsthand. Unbeknownst to Grecsek, she had slipped a roll of film into her camera that had already been used. But unlike the typical double exposure images that every amateur photographer (who still uses film) has unwittingly produced - these were absolutely haunting. In photo after photo unexplained images of faces, hands, even musical instruments, overlay Leaness, not randomly but carefully over and around her - apparitions from another place and time.
"In the older cemetery," Grecsek says, "Dawn had a change of attitude. We had been interrupted and had to move our location, and it was hot. While I was happy because of the light, the monuments, the shading, and coloration of the tombs, she was not happy. The shots took on a whole different look. Dawn exhibited a greater ease of movement so I was able to shoot the entire roll very quickly. At this point she was wearing a 100-year old white dress, and her feet were dirty. She didn't want any accessories. Her hair, which is absolutely straight, is wild and voluminous in these photos, and her face is defiant. Wearing the white see-through dress, with absolutely no makeup on, she looks like an angel. Her eyes and face assumed a look I didn't recognize. I could feel her humanity, her spirit, her feelings. It was like she expected me and had been waiting for a time as old as that dress."
Grecsek says she has always believed in life after death, and that certain events in her life have helped solidify that belief. "I once photographed a statue in a cemetery in Paris," she says, "and when the film was developed, you could actually see cheeks and eyelashes and a distinct face superimposed over one of the statues. Then, after my very best friend, Sophie Cifelli, died of ovarian cancer, her daughter asked me to photograph her child's christening, which was held in Sophie's house. I had one picture left when my camera jammed. When I finally got it to work, I randomly tripped the shutter so I could rewind the film. When the roll was developed, that last shot had captured an image of Sophie's face looking in the window. The whole family couldn't believe it. They just looked at it. Nothing could be explained."
Grecsek admits that she had nothing to do with the phenomena she captured. "Here's the deal - specific images of Dawn were captured in a double exposure. I didn't create the final image. While Dawn was moving, I was concentrating on the light and what she was sitting on. But the way the hands seem to reach out to her, and the placement of the faces of other people, which don't block her image, is extraordinary. Once you look at it, you tell me what you think. Because you can only think one thing. I have no idea who these people are. It's my film and even I can't identify them.
"At first, I wasn't satisfied with the prints. That prompted me to spend two weeks in New York going to galleries, to study various black and white photos. I visited the Leon Friedlander exhibit at MoMA. Friedlander has produced black and white photography of everyday people for 30 years. I realized that his silver gelatin prints were fabulous. That process gives you magnificent contrast between shadows and the light. I thought, they are so lifelike, this is how I want the photos to look."
Silver gelatin prints are created from photographic film covered with silver salts which, when exposed to light, result in certain areas of the emulsion being eaten away in varying degrees. This produces dramatic differences in tones and shadows.
Leigh Images, which processed and printed the film for Grecsek, possessed the required developing equipment to produce the silver gelatin effect. Interestingly, they had never used it before because no client had ever requested the process. "When they laid out the show in the back room," reports Grecsek, "people at Leigh were crying."
Leigh's creative director, Stacy Rothermel, attests to the integrity of the images. "I aimed to capture the integrity of what Jane did. I would lose the integrity of the piece if I tried to alter it in any way." Grecsek says the negatives are stored in a safe deposit box just in case the integrity of the images gets questioned somewhere down the line.
Grecsek, 62, grew up in Staten Island, the oldest of four children. Her father, John Draghi, who is deceased, developed seven patents during a career with Con Edison. Her mother, Ann, is in real estate. And in an a rather extraordinary connection with Paris, where she purchases those one-of-a-kind dresses, her great, great grandfather was the original owner of the Moulin Rouge nightclub. Grecsek and her husband, John, now retired from Colgate Palmolive, live in West Windsor. They have three grown children and six grandchildren.
Having grown up at a time where women weren't offered the same opportunity as men to attend college, Grecsek first worked on her own in cause-related marketing. About 15 years ago, after taking pictures of her kids for years, segued into shooting commercially.
"Most commercial customers want a new look or feel for their company," says Grecsek. "I get into changing the way they look through reportage photography which, because it involves only black and white, requires a tremendous knowledge of the use of light.
"I don't do still portraits, I do candid shots, even at weddings. It's about catching the moment, because light doesn't stand still, and every 10 minutes it's different."
As to the bread and butter of her business, photographing traditional celebrations and weddings, Grecsek is already booked into next year. A recent commercial piece for Greenfield Jewelers inspired Grecsek to shoot the third-generation proprietors standing in the water on a 110-degree day. "They wanted to update the business's image and I have to say, they were good sports. It was a courageous thing for them to do. Their clients are going to be astounded at what we did."
Says Grecsek: "I don't advertise my services. Everything is word of mouth, so I've never stepped out like this before. But I know I have a natural gift, whether it's catching something spiritual, or the most special moment in someone's life. When I saw these photos, I said to myself, I can't not let these be seen. I don't know where these images are going to take me next, but wherever they take me is where I have to go."
"Vie Apres Mort," reportage photography by Jane Grecsek, opening reception, Friday, September 23, 5 to 8 p.m., Nest, 2 Somerset Street (second floor of the Tomato Factory Antiques Center), Hopewell. Through October 9. Gallery hours: Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 5 p.m. 609-468-0083.