Toomas Volkmann is a living classic of the Estonian phorography who has had a colourful working life in fields which seem on the surface to be worlds apart, yet when his name is mentioned in Estonia, people immediately only recognize Toomas Volkmann, the photographer.
Toomas Volkmann was born and spent his early years in Pärnu City in the SW of Estonia (pop.40,000). , a coastal resort town almost deserted in winter but pulsating with life in summer. Little Toomas attended an extra-curricular biology class in school. And once a year, his father summoned the entire family in order to make a special visit to the photographer for a proper family photograph. This left a deep impression on the boy and Volkmann recalls that it was like going to church. Of course, going to church was not really the done thing in the Soviet times, or at least it was not looked upon favourably by the authorities. The atmosphere at the photographer’s studio however was festive and serious at the same time − and somewhat mystical. Volkmann still carries these memories with him and it is most likely that those annual visits have influenced the colour scheme and emotion of his photography today.
Jumping slightly ahead in the sequence of events, it is worth mentioning that the boy from the biology class did not go into photography straight after school, but more logically spent some time studying medicine at the University of Tartu University of Tartu - Tartu Ülikool is an Estonian higher education institute. . But he found out it did not really suit him, which prompted him to change direction and enrol at the Tallinn Tallinn, the largest city and capital of Estonia (population 440 000). Conservatoire to study acting − an important milestone in his photography work later on as we’ll see.
Growing up in a small town, Volkmann often went to the theatre and admits that his childhood dream was to become an actor because of the great plays he saw. His deepest recollections are of Samuel Beckett’s absurd play ‘Waiting for Godot’, which was staged by Lembit Peterson and starred acting students. He recalls: ‘As everyone left the theatre hall at the end of the play, I was mesmerized although I didn’t really get everything what had happened on stage! It was a feeling of total emptiness, the kind of emotion which I have looked for in my photography later on.’
So Volkmann enrolled in the theatre school, where he learned to express his emotions, understand the importance of breathing and was happy to learn from inspiring tutors…and then… did he go on to study photography? Not yet − the next thing he did was to become a vocalist in the early music ensemble ‘Hortus Musicus’. These were dramatic days in Estonia, as the Republic of Estonia was reborn and the Soviet Union collapsed opening the borders. Volkmann made the decision to fly to London, where he took a photography course for a year and it is only since then (1994) that he has been known as a photographer. It can be stated that he immediately shot on to the Estonian photography scene as something of a comet or a supernova, and indeed his star is still shining brightly.
Of course there have been both easier and more difficult times, but Volkmann has never felt the urge to run away from photography − or to leave Estonia for good. He has run exhibitions all over the world, but this is where he can breathe most easily, and the older he gets, the more he ‘gets’ our people. ‘People from other countries are almost like hieroglyphs to me − I admire their beauty but I do not ‘’get’’ it,’ says Volkmann. ‘I can photograph them but it does not feel like part of my own being. Then I return to Estonia and see, ok it’s raining, I get a lungful of Estonian air and realize I have landed again. I look at the people and faces, all the stories, the neighbourhood men and women. I understand them. It is a text I can read,’ he explains.
In the early 1990s, Volkmann shuttled between London and Estonia and witnessed first-hand the wild freedom in Estonia compared with the limited opportunities in London − talk about getting our foot in the door not to mention creative freedom − and he enjoyed working in Estonia too. ‘One needs incredible ambition to make a breakthrough elsewhere, and the entire world is full of people with ambition,’ says Volkmann. But in Estonia he was a pioneer in photography − someone who set the trend. He quickly developed his own signature in portrait photography. He recalls those days: ‘When I came here, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. My fellow students in London complained about having to drag around boxes and cables and not having the time to focus on their own creative work at the end of the day.’
This is what he has to say about the mid-1990s in Estonia: ‘Back in those days nobody in Estonia had an idea what a proper fashion magazine should look like and what fashion photography was about. There was a complete blank slate. Today everything seems much more in its place and has somehow ossified. But back at the end of the 1990s, we had no limits. I also had no idea what a fashion photograph should look like. When I look at the photos from back then, I think nobody would publish them now. For example, nobody would include a woman with a cigarette in a magazine. But nevertheless there is something almost criminal about a smoking woman, it is a form of protest. Only a few top fashion magazines can get away with it. I think today we lack glamour – the danger has disappeared from the fashion photography of the magazines. There are just beauty shots. There is no glamour, as glamour always involves some decadence, it has to be exaggerated and dangerous.
These days Volkmann shoots mostly portraits and mostly in black-and-white. He believes that colour degrades the form. When he uses colour, it is still monochrome − used in a very calculated, targeted way. ‘There is too much colour around us anyway,’ he laughs.
As a person, Volkmann is vibrant and likes to laugh, at least when in good company. But he tends to photograph serious people; even in children he prefers seriousness. Yes, sometimes he makes family photographs but nothing too mobile and happy − he tends to look for something more static. This is what he has to say about his process: ‘When I photograph, I try to be the one who fixates; it is a very technical approach. I find it easier if I do not know anything about the person I am photographing. The more I am able to technically fix the person, the more I get that person into the photo. It may seem like a paradox. You fix everything to a millimetre, and that is what gives it freedom − the truth will trickle into that mould. If there is no mould, it misses it.
These days everything is done in whilst in motion. Sometimes people will say to me that they would like at least some movement in the photos. And I think ‘you are not a professional dancer − the movements you can do are limited to just tossing your hair or jumping up into the air’. It seems to me that the more I remove such movement, the more interior movement, full-bodied movement there will be in the final product. It’s an Oscar Wilde-like paradox − the more you move, the less you move!’ he explains.
Fortunately Estonians are familiar with Volkmann’s style and the customers who do come to him asking for family photographs are those who prefer static, black-and-white photos. Volkmann likes to photograph children and likes to work with people who come to have family portraits done. He says, ‘Of course it is easier with models, because they know how to be organic. But ordinary people who come to the photographer are somehow “cooler’’ in their ignorance. They do not know what exactly will happen. Models do not put so much into it as do people who have taken the time, with their wives, husbands and children, to come to the photographer.’ Volkmann is mesmerized by the seriousness to be found in children. ‘They have more of an adult in them, as kids than when they grow. Adults already know what shapes to make. And if they have been doing that for years, it becomes part of them. With children there is always the unexpected. The seriousness of a child is so much more, well, serious. I try to avoid the overly funny side when I photograph kids. The seriousness of children is so much more acute for me and so different from that of adults.’
Speaking of next generations, some people have expressed the desire to learn from Volkmann. But Volkmann is not so taken with this thought. ‘It is not really possible to teach. It is possible to enthuse someone and they will start to see for themselves. Yes people have approached me, but I am cautious of such things because I have the feeling that I am not a very good teacher. I have given lecturers, but I am uncomfortable with the idea of going into a studio to coach someone. I can analyse photos. But not coach whilst shooting…. I change according to the person, there is no universal teaching method. When someone takes a photography course or studies photography, they still might not become a photographer. If someone gives you a pen as a present, you do not necessarily start writing novels. It requires some gene, you need to have a private passionate relationship with this activity.’ Volkmann himself has a passionate relationship with photography. There have been periods when he hasn’t felt like taking photos of people and in those times he has taken photos of objects, flowers instead. But then he pulls himself together again and is happy to make a breakthrough to opening the lock. Photography is the continuation of his existence, he says.
Whilst a portrait photographer, he does not create self-portraits. ‘I do not really recognise myself on photos,’ he says. ‘If it is a photo which needs to accompany for example an article, then I know what it should be like, but that is a genre. But if I just take a photo of myself, I do not recognise myself! Ann Tenno has taken many photos of me and I have learned a great deal from her. Ann used to make photos with a large camera, very silently and very static poses. ‘No, you’re breathing wrongly! Breathe in…. and then smile….’ she says; I also use that approach on my own models, so we look for a breathing rhythm. Everything comes through breathing. That is what I was taught in theatre school.’