Creating expressive, hard-hitting photography, videos and multimedia, Jacob Koestler avoids fitting within any clean boxes

By McKenna Corson

As the old adage goes, blessings can come in disguise.

Jacob Koestler’s greatest blessing came well masqueraded in the form of a car striking him as he rode his bike, leaving a 10-year-old Koestler confined to a wheelchair and in physical therapy for a year each.

Of course, the idea that this debilitating crash was an unexpected gift from the universe wasn’t how young Koestler, now 36, processed what happened. Forced into a prolonged state of recovery, he had no choice but to turn to more sedentary activities for entertainment. 

Jacob Koestler | Photo / Laura Bidwell

He grew up living at his grandmother’s house in Johnstown, Pa., a former bustling steel epicenter turned struggling, infamously thrice flooded, small city about 60 miles east of Pittsburgh. Koestler’s mother worked at a local movie rental store, and suddenly, Koestler had access to an all-you-can-watch buffet of horror and sci-fi films. 

It was also around this time that Koestler received his first album, “Siamese Dream,” released in 1993 by alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins, that brought him into a world of grungy, defiant sound. Koestler plunged into rebellious, rock-heavy music and music videos, religiously watching MTV’s late-night alternative-focused television show “120 Minutes,” taking up guitar, composing music, making music videos with friends, creating handmade packaging and dreaming of joining a band.  

In high school, his forms of creative expression expanded once more, this time into photography. He had finished the classes he needed for graduation early, but instead of relaxing in study halls, Koestler undertook independent studies in his school’s darkroom and taught himself how to develop photos.

With his eye peering through a camera’s view finder, he could twist mundane structures and landscapes in the outside world into uniquely framed and composed masterpieces. 

“I’ve always enjoyed photography because it’s going out and rediscovering compositions that are preexisting in the natural world, or, with my work, it’s always the human-altered landscape that I’m focusing on,” Koestler says. “Oftentimes, I want to criticize and examine the history of that landscape, but I also want to hold it up and find the magic within it.”

When it came time for Koestler to enter college, he was left with two choices: study music or study photography. 

“I was kind of a punk when I was 18, so I didn’t really want anybody to tell me how to play music,” Koestler says. “That’s how I decided to study photography and move into that field professionally.”

“Anything but the Shadows” (2013) by Jacob Koestler. Archival pigment print, 40 x 32 inches. Photo from Koestler and Michael McDermit’s forthcoming book and exhibition, “Strange Devotion.”

Finding his style

Majoring in photography at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Koestler honed his craft. He and a band of like-minded artists and musicians pooled their money to purchase a former banana refrigeration warehouse and transformed it into a gallery, zine library and show space for bands venturing through the area in Johnstown. 

Koestler spent his early 20s seeking to define himself, both artistically and personally, he says. He started playing around with video and how it could be used to add to his projects or tell stories on their own. 

“I’d describe my art style as psychedelic realism,” Koestler says. “I want to show the subject how it is, but oftentimes I’m looking at it graphically in such a way that I want to find that mysticism in it as well. I want it to be slightly abstracted, similar to the ways that people bring their own subjective lens when looking at the natural world.” 

Photographic flaws, like light leaks and focus issues, became sought after composition aspects Koestler viewed as vital to his goal of revealing an other worldly, historical or socially significant presence in the natural world. 

He started allowing literary influences to fuel his photography, namely writings of W.G. Sebald and Rebecca Solnit ­– “two authors who really tell the history of something, but they’re not afraid to interject their own subjective voice or their own personal encounters to help bolster this historical story that they’re telling,” Koestler says.

His music taste brought him into new genres and movements, like experimental and noise music, as he connected with artists and musicians on new frontiers.     

Breaking into the empire of mainstream artistry was the last of his worries as a 20-something artist, he says. Instead, he sought to invent his own subsection of the industry, along with his troupe of angst-fueled creators.    

“I felt like I was on top of the biggest art world in the world, but I had never shown anything in New York, on the West Coast or done anything internationally,” Koestler says. “I wasn’t even paying attention to the art world. We were coming at it from such a punk music mindset that we were going to do everything our own way.”

“Go Away Everywhere” (2014) by Jacob Koestler. Photograph on newsprint, 30 x 20 inches. Photo from Koestler and Michael McDermit’s forthcoming book and exhibition, “Strange Devotion.”

Koestler vs. the art world

Into his mid-20s, Koestler began to travel, read theory and study contemporary art more. Five years after completing his undergraduate education, he decided graduate school was his next move. He enrolled in the photography and integrated media department at Ohio University in Athens at the dawn of the 2010s. Video quickly became his newest endeavor, particularly video and multimedia installation and how he could reformat art spaces with projectors, screens and audio components. It wasn’t long before Koestler noticed his ability to devise video installation and experimental cinema ideas functioned far faster than his developing photographic brain.

Diving into this new medium wasn’t Koestler’s only change during grad school. He realized for him to continue down this path of professional artistry, he would have to make an effort to join the overarching, seemingly totalitarian art world. Koestler started taking out applications, seeking out publishers and searching for gallerists and collectors so he could have his work seen and hopefully bring in an income.

He was soon overcome with an overwhelming, existential predicament that continues to linger deep within his brain today. The art world was, in a way, a necessary evil, he says. It forced Koestler to switch focus from crafting art based on self-expression to constantly worrying about his projects’ visibility, like at art shows and film festivals, and profitability. He debated if he could continue creating hard-hitting, thought-provoking pieces across mediums instead of visually appealing, superficial pictures.  

“I started to question if this was sustainable – me and thousands of post-art school people going after the same idea, the same prizes within the art world,” Koestler says. “It just started feeling like it was a bubble over there that wasn’t connected with real life, the violence I was watching in the world, the racism or the transphobia. It was a conversation that existed somewhere else.”

“Like Skin” (2010) by Jacob Koestler. Archival pigment print, 20 x 16 inches. Photo from Koestler and Michael McDermit’s forthcoming book and exhibition, “Strange Devotion.”

Extending multimedia

After grad school, Koestler and his longtime partner moved to Cleveland in 2015, to help her nephew who was struggling with school. It wasn’t long until Koestler found his niche in Cleveland’s art community, where he started as a technical specialist at the Cleveland Institute of Art the same year. He eventually settled in Cleveland Heights and worked his way up to a full-time lecturer position in CIA’s photography and video department. Teaching became a beloved endeavor in his life, and he was able to configure his schedule to allow for his studio time. 

Each year, his workload managed to increase. He made music and live scores for his videos under the name Rural Carrier. He started dabbling in art installation. He founded a creative imprint with his childhood friend, filmmaker, musician and writer, Michael McDermit, in 2020 with the commencement of their first documentary project in the summer of 2019. Through the imprint, Blurry Pictures, the two produce documentary films, books and printed projects with increasingly nonfiction content.  

“We started looking at the world around us and how much was changing, viewing ourselves as two white, cis men making art but also working in education, wanting to change and open up more doors for different types of artists,” Koestler says. “Taking semi-abstract images with the goal of showing them in a gallery wasn’t really doing any work that we cared about sociopolitically.”

Forming teams of people became just as important as storytelling, and by bringing on production crews, artists, musicians and former students – as well as working with local companies like printmaking studio, gallery, art residency and educational nonprofit Zygote Press in Cleveland – Koestler found himself able to take part in the exclusive art industry in a way he found positive for many. 

“We found that we could work with people and then also tell real stories in new ways that we didn’t think were being told yet,” Koestler says. “We’d come at it with everything that I’ve learned about, like striving for galleries and grants, but sort of turn that on its head to make it work for itself a little better, and be a more collaborative and community-oriented process as well.”

The idea and depth of language became a key focus in their recent documentaries, like the process of relearning how to communicate through speech, music and art following a traumatic injury and diagnosis of aphasia in “Strawberry Forever,” released in 2020, and a dive into the audibly hectic world of cattle auctioneers in “Sell Me A Cow,” released in 2019. 

Cherokee language and COVID-19

The duo’s current in-progress documentary, “Handful of Water,” is about the Cherokee language and its imminent threat of extinction. The original thought for the documentary came from an interest in Sequoyah, a Native American who created the Cherokee written language without knowing how to read or write in the early 19th century. As Koestler and McDermit learned more about the Eastern Band of Cherokee in Cherokee, N.C., and the Keetoowah Band and Cherokee Nation in Tahlequah, Okla., they discovered that American assimilation continues to have a strong, suffocating grasp on Native Americans.

Filming started in 2019, and by working closely with the Cherokee people and Cherokee television station Osiyo TV, Koestler and McDermit are shedding light on an endangered language deeply ingrained in an American population’s culture and history. Despite having been forced into boarding schools to learn English, the Cherokee tribes have fought back through language immersion schools, language activists, master apprentice programs and transformations of Cherokee casinos into language schools. 

The ongoing storm of COVID-19 interrupted the film’s production, but Koestler says he is now appreciative for the break in filming. Time away from the project gave Koestler and McDermit the ability to apply for grants, which they used to purchase video cameras sent to their Cherokee collaborators to shoot from their own perspective, and to bring on Cherokee musicians, animators and a producer. Koestler estimates the film is about a year away from being theater-ready.

“The sear of COVID really shaped the project in a way,” Koestler says. “Perhaps we would have kept trying to be directors in the traditional sense and steer this ship and make it our story, but because we had to stay home, we were able to retool a lot to understand that we wanted this to be a collaborative process.”

“Island, Cranks, KY” (2010) by Jacob Koestler. Archival pigment print, 24 x 32 inches. Photo from Koestler and Michael McDermit’s forthcoming book and exhibition, “Strange Devotion.”

A gothic novella, 10 years in the making

Blurry Pictures is also in the last stages of editing a photo and fiction book, “Strange Devotion,” a 40-page novella written by McDermit and sequenced within 76 photographs of Koestler’s. 

The book visually depicts a decade Koestler spent wandering through Appalachia and the Rust Belt, where he photographed man’s ghost haunting a rich landscape abused by industry. The photographs take the reader on a journey above bridges threaded with dripping ivy and fragmented wasp nests, battered mobile homes and poorly constructed wooden sheds atop emerald green grass and river caves layered with years of erosion and dark turquoise stained rock.

On Sept. 4, “Strange Devotion” will debut with a book launch and small exhibition at William Busta Projects, a project space run by William Busta in the Waterloo Arts District of Cleveland. 

Busta, who’s owned art galleries for decades up until his retirement in 2015, first became aware of Koestler when he saw a proposal for his photography book, “Everybody Wants Somewhere,” at an artists’ book fair a few years ago. Busta immediately became enthralled with Koestler’s skill and his desire to collaborate with others.

“He clearly, to me, is the most visionary photographer that is currently active in the region,” Busta says. “He takes photographs of subjects that we’ve seen before, like of ruined buildings, caves in the woods or forests, but there’s something that he adds to it. Maybe it’s a little bit like painting, that there’s layers put that the composition seems much more deliberate. It’s not a formal composition, but there’s something to it that sort of snags at the mind and at the intelligence.”

A promising future

To Busta, Koestler’s style of incorporating numerous mediums at once makes him unique. While he’s seen a handful of other artists weave in and out of photography, video, music, writing, publishing, installation and curatorial endeavors, the skill at which Koestler is able to undertake his palette of self-expression is hard to find.

“That’s part of the charm that Jacob put in front of himself –
it takes so much work to get to that level in different media, though he seems to have done it seamlessly,” Busta says. “That’s very, very rare to be able to transition from one thing to another and achieve at the same level.”

While it might be a headache for others to imagine excelling in so many art forms while working full-time, Koestler can find his ever-growing juggling of teaching, creative projects, profitability, visibility and some form of personal life stressful at times. It’s through working with others, especially McDermit, and remembering his creations have the ability to enact positive change that Koestler moves forward – camera, computer, guitar or pen at hand, he says.

One of Koestler’s most recent works showcased locally was “Casual Water,” a package of photographs, printed ephemera and video that weaves a tale of an abandoned country club. The exhibition was on view at SPACES in Cleveland from April 12 to June 7, 2019.  

From a man unsure of his place in a dominating industry to a confident artist with work that’s traveled the world, Koestler has come a long way since the accident that unexpectedly started him down a path of unflinching creativity. In the years to come, he wants to remain just as prolific, but with maybe a little less stress. He already has a handful of documentary ideas in progress and plans to continue his fruitful teaching career.  

“I’m unsure always if I’ve broken into an art world or what art world that is,” Koestler says. “It has its perks and also its pitfalls to work in as many mediums as I do. If I’m being realistic, I don’t think any one art world would know exactly what to think of me.”