St. Paul photographer Karolina Karlic was 23 and working in the photo studio of the Marshall Field’s ad department in 2006. She hated it there. She was an artist, but that didn’t matter between the hours of 9 and 5. Whenever she could swing it — at lunch breaks and during photo shoots — she was online and poring over the “Missed Connections” section of the omnipotent want-ad website Craigslist, a space reserved for the desperate and often poetic efforts of men and women hoping against hope for an alternative to lonely.
The posts were an escape for Karlic at first, then an obsession, then a source of terror. Now they’ve been transformed into a series of 13 lush and captivating photos hanging at the Minnesota Center for Media Arts as part of a series she calls “Dear Diary” in a group show called “The Longing.”
If you haven’t read Missed Connections, the posts go something like this:
“I don’t know if you read these. I have seen you all summer since I moved into my house at the end of May on the corner where you turn. My little sister spotted you and told me you were cute … I have waived at you a few times. It is scary but you actually look a lot like my past spouse. I am not trying to sound weird but my husband died over two years ago and he looked A LOT like you. You have a reddish goatee … and most of the time you have your cute big shepherd with you … Whatever your up to I wish you the best, just wanted to say something kind not trying to be creepy.”
Kowalski’s (Grand): We were in line and bought the same pizza. It would have been nice to share it instead.
There were only a handful of daily posts then. There are hundreds today. “It was amazing to me,” says Karlic, “the way some people could build such visuals with their writing … on Craigslist! And that some people actually did connect.”
Interviews and photographs
She started responding to posts that affected her and arranging to meet with the people who wrote them. She wanted to do an interview, she told them, and take their picture.
Soon she was spending most nights and weekends with the fluid community of Missed Connections.
The first person to say yes was Mike. “He really wanted to be photographed,” Karlic remembers. “He was more ready than I was and that scared me. He’d say ‘let’s meet Wednesday’ and I’d say ‘how about Thursday?’ — we finally met on a Sunday.”
Photographer friends offered to go with her, to pretend to be her assistant, but she insisted on being alone — Karlic conducts long interviews with her subjects, and it’s something she says she has to do alone.
Mike’s post was about an ex-girlfriend, and his new girlfriend was there when Karlic arrived with her large camera, 90-lb. tripod, four different lenses, a film pack, and her lighting rig. “It was a bizarre situation.” But mostly, Mike went OK, and there were hundreds more over the course of a year.
It was never a comfortable endeavor. “Especially with the men,” she says. “I’m tough — very stubborn, but with all of that gear I can’t just run!” So when she first entered a subject’s home, she’d have just her camera. If she felt comfortable, it was “let me go out and get the rest of my gear.”
If it didn’t feel right, like the time she showed up to a subject’s house to find it strewn with beer bottles and buddies passing a blunt, she feigned some physical discomfort or suggested an outside shot or, failing that, came up with something like, “You seem fragile, I think I should come back another time.”
The project as she had known it ended bluntly the day a young woman turned up dead, with a gunshot wound in her back, in the trunk of her Hyundai in the parking lot of the Kraemer Park Reserve in Burnsville. It was Oct. 26, 2007. Katherine Ann Olson was just 23 years old. She had responded to a Craigslist ad the day before — for a babysitting gig she had arranged with somebody she knew only as “Amy,” a false identity. She was allegedly lured to 19-year-old murder suspect Michael John Anderson’s parents’ house and killed there.
Karlic received a warning through her Craigslist account — a word of caution from Craigslist administrators.
“That’s it,” she remembers thinking. “The project is over.”
And it was, for a month. She considered going to Olson’s memorial service but didn’t. She thought about contacting Olson’s parents but didn’t.
When she returned to the project, she knew it had to be different. “The whole thing seemed crazy to me. There’s no way I’d respond to this lady asking to take my picture!”
But it was more than that. She was terrified to go into the homes of the strangers she encountered on the Internet. “I’ve never stopped myself from taking my camera out into the world. But I stopped myself.”
She started taking photographs inside her St. Paul home — still lifes. When she began venturing out into the world with her camera again, it was to make photographs in her neighborhood — neighbor’s yards, garages, and alleys.
Eventually she returned to Missed Connections, but she wasn’t trying to meet anybody. She was taking the stories she found and using friends as subjects to create photographs that captured some essence of what she was reading on post-Katherine Ann Olson Craigslist.
“It wasn’t an anthropological work anymore; I was making these constructed images that weren’t 100 percent honest.” She won’t say which of her images are anthropological and which are constructed. But in that ambiguity is some of the mystery in the posts that animated her imagination from the start.
The point is the vulnerability of it all. A vulnerability Karlic says she felt herself from the project’s inception. “This was a personal journey. It was like therapy for the subject and for me. I was going through a rough time — thinking love does not exist — I didn’t feel separate from my subjects.”
“The Longing,” featuring the photographs of Karolina Karlic and Josh Quigley, is at the Minnesota Center for Media Arts until Nov. 8. More info here.
Jeff Severns Guntzel writes about the arts and other topics for MinnPost.