By Lou Mancinelli
The hand-colored photography of former professional dancer- turned photographer and New York Times-reviewed children’s book author, Barbara Hirsch Lember, who still teaches dance as well as Pilates at age 70, is now on exhibition at Gravers Lane Gallery through Sept. 30.
Featured artwork includes selections of hand-painted photographs from her three published books, “A Book of Fruit” (1994) and “The Shell Book” (1997), both children’s books from Houghton Mifflin, and “If You Find a Rock” (Harcourt, 2000). Lember’s photographs illustrated the third book, authored by Peggy Christian and published by Harcourt Brace. A book signing is scheduled for Sept. 30 from noon to 3 p.m. at the gallery, located at 8405 Germantown Ave.
One can be sure Lember’s photos have a motion, like the whoosh of the bottom of a swinging dress. And why not? As a dancer she’d moved in historic modern dance performances in the late 1960s. One might imagine the mind that once controlled the finesse of her dancer’s body’s lithe, rhythmic movements now controls the finesse with which Lember frames her shots and the way she flirts with tonality. Perhaps the sense of form in space and the beauty expressed by the dancer’s place on the stage is the sense Lember strives to show (or maybe suggest) with her photos. “There’s a lot to think about before you press the button,” said Lember. “My years as a performer, teacher and choreographer have enhanced and enriched my photography. Use of space, form, texture and energy and emotion are all components of both art forms.”
In the two books she authored, Lember uses infrared black and white film, and after developing the film turns it into prints that she hand-paints with transparent oil colors. For the third book, she used traditional black and white film.
Infrared film is used to block the passage of blue wavelengths, thus allowing a clear channel for infrared to pass through, according to Wikipedia. The result is the creation of an image that resonates with a dreamy, hazy and phosphorescent halo-like ambience, almost like a brush pastel painting.
Raised in West Oak Lane, Lember graduated from Olney High School in 1959. She went on to study photography at the then-one-building Philadelphia Museum College of Art at Broad and Pine Streets, now called the University of the Arts.
But photography came later. First came dance. “I figured I’d be able to shoot a lot longer than I’d be able to dance,” said Lember about putting off a photography career until after dancing and until her children were old enough to care of themselves. Then Lember was able to submerge herself in her dark room for eight hours a day.
In 1968 Lember joined the now-renowned Group Motion company and danced in the group’s historic 1968 Judson Church performances in New York and Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 1969. She also studied with legendary choreographer Martha Graham.
While with Group Motion, Lember taught dance at Bryn Mawr College and worked as a part-time commercial photographer. She married her husband Steven, who worked in marketing, in 1966. The couple lived in Bryn Mawr until the mid-’70s, when they relocated to their current Elkins Park Victorian home.
Sometime in the late ‘80s, she felt ready for the camera. She took a trip to the Abington Arts Center to refresh her memory. Then “it was off to the ball.” Beginning in 1987 she took photography classes at the Tyler School of Art and other locations. That same year she exhibited her work at Abington Arts Center.
Since then, Lember has exhibited her work in Turkey and at various shows and invitationals like Woodmere Art Museum, The Works Gallery in Philadelphia and the 80 Washington Square East Galleries in New York. In 2001 she was awarded The Charlotte Zolotow Award by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts for her project “Portraits of People,” in which she captured images of her mother’s apartment the day before she died.
Lember never intended to become a children’s book author. She considered herself a fine art photographer. It happened by chance when a New York City editor at Houghton Mifflin happened upon her work and called Lember in 1992 to see if she wanted to be involved in creating children’s books. Lember obliged. She chose fruit as a subject because she’d photographed numerous still lifes of various fruits for years.
These days Lember teaches a few Pilates classes a week in addition to her own regimen, which she has practiced for two decades and taught for one. She also teaches modern dance to senior citizens at The Performance Garage near 15th and Brandywine Streets in Center City. She and her husband have two married daughters, Jessica and Amanda, and two grandchildren.
For more information, visit www.graverslanegallery.net. Lember’s books are available online through Amazon.com.