This past week Patrice Helmar, an amazing photographer, shadowed me for a day to take over our Intsagram. Below are the images from our day together and an interview with Patrice about her and her work!
On how she knew she wanted to be an artist:
When I was in Kindergarten I remembering drawing little portraits of everyone in my class. I was so happy to give everyone their portrait. Looking back on things, I’m not sure anyone gets to have a choice whether or not they want to be an artist. It’s an extra thing you have to deal with as a human, and you can’t really deny. I’m not crazy about the word, and I still feel funny calling myself an artist. I’d rather admit to having been a bartender, or a public school teacher. Calling yourself an artist is such a bourgeois thing.
On moments of affirmations and self doubt:
Getting into Columbia for graduate school was a make it or break it moment for me. It made me realize I was doing something right. I honestly thought I was throwing away the application fee for that school. I was born and raised in Alaska, and had been living there since I graduated from Southern Oregon University. I didn’t even really know what Columbia was, except that I knew it was an Ivy league school. I had looked at it online. It intimidated me applying, and that’s why I did it. I felt like, fuck it – why not? Why not me? Why not want the best school for once? Why not want to study with the best teachers? In the best city in the world? I didn’t really know how political some people were to get there.
The first year of school at Columbia was really hard. Moving away from a small town in Alaska was very difficult. I had friends say that I was crazy for moving to the city. That really hurt hearing that through the grapevine. I picked up everything and left a place where my family has been for five generations. I feel self doubt every day. I think if an artist says they feel like king shit of shit fuck mountain all the time they’re full of it. I tell myself to be true to what I want to do, and just make my work. Not everyone is going to like what I do. It’s not very sexy, or fashionable right now – but I can’t make something just because I know it will sell. If I wanted to make money I would have gone to law school, or become a doctor.
On her most important influences:
I studied writing as an undergrad, and I look up to a lot of writers. One of my poetry professors, Lawson Fusao Inada made an impact on who I am today. He told his students, “show up and do stuff.” I take that to mean, you have to be in it to win. You have to attend, and be present in the world. In my early 20’s I played a lot of music, and often performed in bars in my hometown. Buddy Tabor was a singer and songwriter in Alaska, and one of my friends and mentors. We talked a lot about telling the truth on stage, song writing, and life. He made a big difference in my life.
I love looking at painting and film. One of my favorite filmmakers is Fellini. His films are often loosely autobiographical and deal with notions of home, and memory. I grew up in my dad’s camera store, so most of the “artists” I love are photographers. I love Kertesz, Brassai, Helen Levitt, and others. Most recently I studied with Thomas Roma at Columbia, and it felt like I finally found a community that had the right words to make sense of what I’ve been chipping away at with photography. It feels like I have a photo family now if that makes sense, which means a great deal to me.
On her aesthetic and work:
I would describe my aesthetic as often photographically, a by any means necessary situation. When I made my work from “Last Call” I was a bartender, and Polaroid was going out of business in the early 2000’s. So I bought a ton of film from the local Costco, and shot with that. It was cheap and accessible. Maybe that’s more about economics, and class. Now I shoot primarily with medium format or large format film. I still take my 35mm cameras out for what I like to call “dancing”. I love working in the world with a light weight camera. It keeps me honest. I strive for simplicity in my photographs. I love the light in George Hurrell’s portraits. I think of that dramatic potential a lot when I light my work. I worry about framing things right. I consider the full frame. I like not knowing often how my photographs will turn out. I always hope they’re better than anything I imagine them to be. I care about good light. In my prints I hope for a decent white and a definite black.
Practice is another one of those words that I like to make fun of. I like to call what I do work. I consider it the same way, except maybe I have a lot more fun doing photography than other jobs I’ve had in my life. But I go at it in the same way. I consider it my occupation. I’m occupied with photography. I devote myself to that. I work in the darkroom, or I look at photo books, or I go to the movies, I teach, or I listen to music. All of that informs my work as a photographer.
On being a woman in the art world:
I try not to think about being a woman that much, or a person for that matter. I know it’s a big deal, being female and all. If I cared about it, or considered it too much it would get in the way of me getting anything done. I don’t want a conventional life, and I never felt like I was cut out for it. I’m happiest when I’m not caught up in who I am. There are so many people right now making work about who they are. The selfie generation is stifling. I’m not knocking a good selfie. I’m on the tail end of that whole deal. But I like getting so caught up in photographing that I forget about the burden of my body, and myself. Getting to that state of of being, or perhaps not being is what drives me to photograph. But yeah, sometimes I wonder if I was a dude if I would be more successful – or have more recognition. Who knows? I’m happy with my lady parts. It would be nice to pee standing up.
On intentions and what matters most:
I want my photos to feel like a love letter from a stranger. People either care about photography, or they don’t. Photography isn’t always the thing in contemporary art. It has to be something else. It has to wear a tuxedo and apologize for it’s crude manners to get invited to the party. There has to be a performance, or a sculpture, or a dog and pony show for it to be taken seriously. I’m not opposed to any of those things, and hey – at some point I may resort to any number of those tools. But honestly, I’m still being surprised by going out in the world and seeing what it has to offer up. I feel a little bummed out sometimes about not being fashionable or whatever, but I feel like I’m doing exactly what I need to be doing. I’m true to myself if nothing else.
You can see Patrice’s first short film “Mockingbird Wish Me Luck” at Bluestocking Cafe (172 Allen Street, New York, NY 10002) on November 20, 2015! To see more of Patrice’s work you can go can go to her website!