Educator and photographer Laura Volkerding (1939-1996) began her artistic career making prints and drawings, and discovered her passion for photography in 1972, at age thirty-three. Volkerding studied fine arts at the University of Louisville and the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology where she received a Master’s degree in graphic design. She taught at University of Chicago from 1970 to 1980, and then served as a senior lecturer in photography at Stanford University until her death in 1996.
Citing photographs by Walker Evans and Art Sinsabaugh, as well as Chicago’s modernist architecture as visual influences, Volkerding’s early photographic work depicts quirky vernacular architecture, campgrounds and suggestive landscapes. In the late 1970s, Laura Volkerding, Nicholas Nixon, Stephen Shore, Frank Gohlke, and Lewis Baltz were among twenty-four photographers chosen to participate in an intensive project entitled Court House that documented historic court house architecture across America. Published in 1979, the monograph Court House: A Photographic Document exhibits a diverse and inclusive examination of America’s architectural heritage. In 1980, Volkerding moved to California and embarked on a project documenting the development of the San Francisco and San Pablo Bay waterfronts creating panoramic images by joining continuous frames of 5 x 7 inch negatives into a more expansive view.
Volkerding experimented with multiple photographic formats before settling, in 1984, on the rich clarity of prints produced with a Deardorff 8 x 10 inch view camera. This same year, Volkerding discovered the subject that would drive her work for over a decade: Les Compagnons du Devoir, a French sculpture apprentice community founded in medieval times. Their history of sculptural practice and reverence for craftsmanship resonated for Volkerding. She was attracted to the figurative and architectural forms that populated their work space. Volkerding photographed classrooms and apprentice projects, foundries and workshops, and cathedral restoration projects. The images suggest the presence of the craftsmen, but are devoid of the actual artisans, thus alluding to the longer craft tradition rather than the contemporary individuals. In addition to making many photographs of Les Compagnons in France, Volkerding photographed other sculpture workshops in Quebec, Tunisia, Spain, Greece, Italy, and the United States. This body of work was exhibited at Stanford in 1986; in 1988 she was awarded her second Guggenheim fellowship. The Center for Creative Photography published a related monograph, Solomon’s Temple: the European Building-Crafts Legacy, shortly before Volkerding’s death.
The Laura Volkerding Endowment and the naming of the Laura Volkerding Reading Room at the Center for Creative Photography serve to perpetuate her important role in photography. The Laura Volkerding Archive contains photographic work prints, negatives, personal papers, and a substantial collection of multi-color intaglio prints and one-color lithographs, as well as 968 fine prints.