The eerie terror of amusement parks
A Massachusetts-based photographer explores the darker side of a summertime favorite
(Isa Leshko)Determined to overcome her fears, Leshko, 44, began staring down the metal monsters through the lens of a Holga camera. Stripped down to its bare essentials, the inexpensive, plastic-film camera "distorted the scale of rides in wonderful — and frequently unpredictable — ways," Leshko says.The resulting body of work, called Thrills & Chills, is currently on display as part of the "Fraction of a Second" show at 516 Arts in Albuquerque. The shots transcend musings on summer frivolities and offer something more, free from context, time, and place.
(Isa Leshko)To accomplish such dizzying effects, Leshko photographed the rides in black and white, against the open sky, occasionally obscuring the shot's provenance as a theme park ride entirely."As I was shooting, I tried to remember how I felt as a child looking up at these rides for the first time," Leshko says. "I wanted to make the rides seem both fantastic and sinister."By lying flat on the ground, aiming her camera upward, she was able to disproportionately exaggerate the height of the towering terrors.
(Isa Leshko)Many of Leshko's murky images feel haunting and faraway, but the photographer didn't stop at simply capturing the terrifying rides on film — she rode them, too."I felt it was important to make images while I was feeling terrified," she says — a practice that proved as difficult as it sounds. "It's not easy to compose an image and then advance film manually while on a ride that's making you feel ill!"
(Isa Leshko)The Holga, the camera Leshko used in creating the series, added its own set of challenges as well. Considered a gimmicky toy by many of her contemporaries, Leshko at times questioned whether she was using the medium more as a knowing wink or creative crutch."I made a lot of bad pictures while working on this project" she says. "[And I asked myself], is there more to this image beyond its vignette and blur?"But Leshko stayed the course, inspired at times by the punk music she was listening to while working on the series.Both punk music and Holga-made images "are accessible, but it's a mistake to think they are as simple as they appear," she explains. "And both genres impishly thumb their noses at the conventions of their respective mediums, which is partly why I love them so."
(Isa Leshko)Over time, Leshko discovered the Holga was an unlikely parallel for how she felt filming the project. Just as the camera demands the photographer accept imprecision and occasional flaws — a big ask for the self-described perfectionist — so too did Leshko realize the rides required her to let go."While working on the project, I came to realize that my fear was ultimately about surrendering myself to forces beyond my control," Leshko says.And that's what the machines dare you to do: Close your eyes, hold on tight, and just enjoy the ride.
(Isa Leshko)**Thrills & Chills is currently on display as part of the "Fraction of a Second" show at 516 Arts in Albuquerque. See more of Isa Leshko's work on her website, and follow her on Twitter and on Instagram**