Heritage, and shifting perspectives, on display

Lisa Vollmer Photography Studio + Gallery


GREAT BARRINGTON — When Sabine von Falken and the rest of her family uprooted from Berlin, Germany, to the Berkshires in 1977, she didn't leave her professional passion behind.

"I moved my family and the dark room — and the camera," the Stockbridge photographer said.

Von Falken's then-husband was opening up a branch of a German manufacturing firm in Canaan, Conn., that is known today as Vollmer America. But their daughter, Lisa Vollmer, who was just 2 upon arriving in the U.S., decided to follow her mother's career path. She learned "everything" about the art form from von Falken, whose background was in black-and-white theater shots and documentary photography. Still, Vollmer needed to develop her own creative lens.

"My mother is a storyteller. She's able to tell the story of a moment or of the scene, and I'm more someone who has an idea in mind of what I want to communicate and what I want to talk about, what I want to engage in, and then I try [to] create images that provoke that conversation or dialogue with the viewer," she said Monday at Lisa Vollmer Photography Studio + Gallery, a commercial and fine art space along Stockbridge Road in Great Barrington.

In a new show at the business Vollmer runs with her mother, visitors can get a glimpse of their distinct approaches. "Sakura" features conceptual self-portraits from Vollmer's recent trip to Japan and new pieces from von Falken's "Wunderkabinett," a "cabinet of curiosities" that includes photos of figurines and other items collected over the course of four-plus decades. Though the two photographers' work in the exhibition, which opens with a reception at 4 p.m. Saturday, May 4, differs in style and presentation, cultural tradition is under the microscope in both.

"That is a collection of artifacts or sentimental memory pieces," von Falken said Monday, while overlooking the once-common "cabinet of curiosities" that has long been considered a forerunner to the modern museum.

"The work is about my heritage, my cultural heritage — what it means to have a German woman go to different countries, and what the historical ramifications of that are," Vollmer said.

In many of the "Sakura" photos, the Great Barrington resident represents her heritage by wearing a traditional German dress called a "dirndl." It is red, symbolizing women's empowerment. In the first image greeting visitors upon entering the gallery, Vollmer's back is turned to the viewer. She is standing in a Japanese bathhouse exhibit at the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum, facing Mount Fuji wallpaper, one hand tucked in a pocket.

"That acts as a symbol in my work as something that is not fully disclosed or is hidden. But technically, I'm taking the photo with the remote there," she said, noting that she had set up a tripod with a Canon.

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Across the room, a different self-portrait depicts a robot restaurant advertisement. Colors, and technology, overwhelm.

"This is the new, wild Japan," she said.

Vollmer's work has long explored the concept of East meeting West. She has worked in India, Turkey and Cuba, among other nations. Her interest in self-portraits arose from her time at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago during the 1990s. For more than a year, she photographed travelers arriving at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport from different countries. In them, she saw herself.

"It's about cultural heritage and my story, too, of immigrating to this country, and my love of travel and meeting people," she said of the O'Hare photos, which are available for purchase at the show.

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During her Berkshire childhood, Vollmer attended the Great Barrington Rudolf Steiner School. It was more than just an educational decision.

"That was a really important place for us to go because ... this area didn't have the internet yet, so people were not really at all knowledgeable on what Germany [was]," Vollmer said.

Von Falken taught German at the school for a period before starting her own Berkshire-based photography business. She was born in 1946 in Hagen-Hohenlimburg, an area that was recovering from World War II. Her first professional love was black-and-white theater photography.

"At the time, we were running to the dark room. [We] developed the film and then ran out again to deliver them to the newspapers," she recalled.

Her affinity for black and white has not faded. In "Wunderkabinett," her photos of a cattail head, train conductor figurine and utensils will prompt more squinting than eye-rubbing. They also evoke nostalgia, longing and perhaps some regret.

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"The dark shades are chosen by me for the mystery of it all," von Falken said.

In a lower drawer, her "Britannica" series juxtaposes an encyclopedia page and a corresponding object. And in yet another compartment, a large print of Salvador Dali captures the artist directing a scene in the late 1960s.

"This was practically my first published photo," von Falken recalled.

Though increasingly conceptual as she ages, von Falken's work is less abstract than her daughter's. Gallerygoers can talk to her about it at the opening over some cherry blossom tea, a nod to Vollmer's "Sakura" photo depicting the flower in a corner of the gallery. Vollmer, meanwhile, remains committed to the notion that photography is subjective.

"The person behind the camera creates the image, and it's more about who's behind the camera than it is what is in front of the camera," she said.

Asked if she agrees with her daughter's approach, von Falken indicated that she did. While tradition was more blatantly on display around them, the importance of shifting perspectives could be discerned, too.

"I see totally where the young generation is going with their deeper thoughts," von Falken said.

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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