Story 95: Patrice Aphrodite Helmar

What is your backstory?

I come from a working-class family and was born and raised in Juneau, Alaska. When I was a very young child my whole family worked together fishing on a small hand troller and commercially caught salmon. When the Exxon Valdez oil spill happened in 1989 the price of fish plummeted, and we sold our boat. My parents bought a small camera store.

I grew up working in the shop. I’d go there after school and test cameras for tourists, re-stock film, sell cameras, and later I learned to print in the darkroom. I was making archival prints for historic collections using glass plate negatives. My father was a very good printer and I remember how long I had to work on each plate before it was up to his standard. He loved music and we’d listen to it all day: a lot of jazz, blues, classical, but he also had a love of old country, especially Hank Williams.

I left Alaska right after high school to study at a small state school in Oregon. I studied writing and fell in love with poetry after a class with the poet, Lawson Fusao Inada. Inada was a brilliant teacher who taught the importance of “showing-up”. 

In my senior year of college, my father died unexpectedly. I made it through my studies and returned to Alaska. We closed our family camera store.  For the next ten years or so I was a little lost at sea. I worked as a cocktail waitress, baker, barista, bartender, a preschool teacher, a social worker, a legal proofreader, and finally a middle school teacher. All during this time I was making photographs.

In my first year of teaching in public schools, it was announced that changes were being made in the state benefit packages for teachers. Being a public school teacher had long been my goal after my less than satisfactory experience as a student in public schools. The impact of cut budgets and no-child left behind measures changed the teaching profession just as I joined the ranks. That first year of teaching I decided to apply to MFA programs. I was accepted to and received a pretty decent scholarship to go to a school in New York City.  I’m currently a visiting professor at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

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What camera gear / editing setup do you use?

I shoot large and medium format film cameras. I work primarily in the darkroom. My partner built one in our bathroom for me during the quarantine where I make prints in homage to one of my heroes, the great Helen Levitt. We have an old clawfoot bathtub where I can fit all of my trays. There’s a print washer near the faucet. I try not to fiddle around too much with altering what I shoot. I dust my negatives for hair, etc. I don’t crop. Making decent negatives makes the process of printing much smoother. My dad would always tell me, “The camera is just a box. The lens is what really matters.”

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How do you achieve the look of your photographs and could you take us through the process?

When I wanted to be a writer my teachers would always tell me that in order to write about the world you have to know something about it. I consider the ten-year gap in my formal education my Ph.D. in life. When I go out to take photographs I don’t have a plan in mind; I was taught this in graduate school. Ideas can be like sugar in the gas tank that gets in the way of allowing for something magic to happen or creep into the frame. I rely on luck and my intuition to bring me to a place or something special — kind of like trolling for salmon. 

I don’t always know what I’m looking for, but I can feel it when I see it. Sometimes even before I see it I get a sense of where I should be . When I was young I wrote poems and played songs. I’m trying to get back to that direct form of communication that can make another person feel a certain way in my photographs.

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Could you tell us the backstory of some of yours photographs?

I don’t like to over-explain my photographs. I trust my viewer and know they’re smart enough to read what is happening in my work. They might see something different than what I do, but that’s a chance I take. 

I will say that the two bodies of work I’m lucky enough to share with you are very different. In Dirty Old Town I’m photographing my hometown: old haunts, places, and people I’m familiar with. In Down By Law I’m taking pictures on the road, or from the multiple times that I’ve been lucky enough to be in my favorite city in the United States, New Orleans.

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What advice do you have for aspiring photographers?

Keep your overhead low. If you’re determined you will make it work. Photography is a job. Don’t wait to feel inspired. No one cares as much about your work as you do. Support one another and meet up with other photographers. Even though we often work alone, art-making is collaborative. Also, please come to a Marble Hill Camera Club meeting and watch photographers present their work in a non-institutional environment. It’s free and open to all.

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Patrice Aphrodite Helmar

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Story 94: Allie Tsubota