On a whim one day years ago while living in Germany, Barbara La Valleur pulled over in her car to investigate an old building. It had been decorated in a creative way, with a tangled mesh of window frames on the outside.
In talking with the building's owner, she learned that he wanted to draw attention to the place, which he'd already spent one million deutsch marks renovating. He was looking for government support, she said.
Naturally, La Valleur, a photojournalist, snapped a shot of the sight. She titled the black-and-white photo "Aus dem Rahmen Gefallen," which has a double meaning. It indicates "something out of the ordinary," she said. At the same time, it literally translates to "falling out of the frame."
That captures the essence of her career, and she chose to use it as the title image for a retrospective exhibit of her photography work called, "Love of a Lifetime: Photos from the U.S. and Europe, 1964-2014." It runs through Feb. 28 at the Edina Senior Center.
Overall, the work reflects "where I've been," literally and figuratively, she said. The photos are grouped by her early Germany and England work, which is all black and white, and then a colorful mix of U.S. places.
However, it was tough to choose from the thousands of photos she's taken over the last half century —both as a photojournalist and as an artist. Sifting through everything "has been somewhat emotional but a lot of fun," she said.
The show includes numerous prints hanging on the wall, along with smaller pieces and even artifacts like her old black leather camera bag and original news clippings and self-published photo books.
The effort has made her reflective. "I've had a very exciting career, and I've done the things I wanted to do," said La Valleur, 69, who retired in 2009. La Valleur came back to Minnesota in 1994, and she and her husband, Arnie Bigbee, have lived in Edina for a decade.
It's also made her think about the people she's met along the way, including her subjects. "I don't take it lightly that over the years, thousands of people have allowed me to take their photos," she said.
A genesis in journalism
La Valleur, who edited her high school newspaper, which was churned out by a mimeograph machine, once traded a car for a typewriter.
At Moorhead State College, now known as Minnesota State University Moorhead, she helped lead the way for a mass communications department, even teaching a journalism class before she graduated.
Early on, she became a reporter at the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. She interviewed Hubert Humphrey, which was "very moving," she said.
La Valleur's first "real gig" after college laid the groundwork for her international photojournalism. The adventure-seeking La Valleur became the editor of Carib magazine in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
However, nobody had warned her that she was on her own, without a typewriter, phone or mailbox, she said. Often, she went for strolls to hunt for stories and sources in-person. She put in long days and never got to enjoy the beach, she said.
Later, as chief photographer for the Daily News serving Wahpeton, N.D., and Breckenridge, Minn., she traveled to the former Soviet Union.
It turned out to be life-changing in more ways than one. She met a British man, Ian Purvis, who became her first husband. The couple, along with their two children, lived in Britain and Germany for nearly 20 years. In Germany, La Valleur became a "freiwillige Fotojournalistin" for seven area newspapers.
That happened serendipitously when the not-so-shy La Valleur went to the office for the local newspaper, called the Bergstraßer Echo, to complain about layout changes. The editor recognized her as a neighbor.
La Valleur told him about a story she'd written about the elderly Oma Schmank, her neighbor in Bensheim. "We had adopted her as our 'erzatz Oma,'" or substitute grandma, La Valleur said.
The editor hired her on the spot to contribute stories and photos to the newspapers.
She learned to speak fluent German, though her grammar isn't always exactly right. "I didn't have to express myself perfectly to be understood or to communicate," La Valleur said.
As an American in Germany, "I had fresh eyes," she said. "I would take photos of things that others would walk right by."
Putting the show together
In putting together the exhibit, La Valleur focused on the last 20 years, since those images are digital. "I did not get out the boxes and boxes of slides that I took in Europe for pleasure," La Valleur said. Also, long ago the negatives she'd stored in a footlocker in the U.S. Virgin Islands were stolen.
In general, La Valleur gravitates to people, preferring candid shots. That said, she still finds children a challenge to shoot, since they "don't sit still." La Valleur enjoys whimsical or funny scenes. One example is a shot of a parent and child using leaves as umbrellas to shield themselves on a rainy day.
In recent years, La Valleur's photos have come mainly from her travels everywhere from the southwest part of the U.S. to her family farm in Ashby, which she refers to as "La Farm," as a play on her French last name. (The license plate on La Valleur's car also reads, "La Car.") A snapshot of "La Shed" at the farm is a study in textures and patterns in natural surroundings.
At the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska, she was moved by the vastness of the landscape. La Valleur shot a craggy rock formation at Mallard Island in Rainy Lake, Minn. — a favorite haunt — which almost seems to have a human profile, she said.
Some images are closer to home, like that of a tree outside her condo window. At the nearby Centennial Lakes Park, "One day there was an amazing, illusional view of the clouds creating the sense of a skeletal building with clouds flowing through it," she said. La Valleur was quick to grab her Nikon camera to capture the dreamy facade.
Michael Frey, who leads the Edina Art Center, where La Valleur has also exhibited her work, helped hang the pieces. He was struck by the fact that "she has such a broad body of work."
One piece he's drawn to shows famous people's signatures etched on a glass windowpane. It's called, "Royal Signatures," from Auerbach, Germany.
The Füstenlager in Auerbach, the former hunting lodge of the royal family of Hessen, has been a stop for Queen Elizabeth, Prince Phillip, Princess Diana, Prince Charles and Yehudi Menuhin, the famous American violinist, and their names can be found on the glass.
The show testifies to the fact that La Valleur is devoted to her craft. "I could say that about anything she touches. When she gets involved, she gives it her all," Frey said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.