Raised in a landscape where everything is big and dramatic, a place famous for its snowy peaks and breaching whales, photographer Patrice Helmar bucked the trend in her field. Her work tends to focus on small scale, more intimate subjects, reflecting the identity of her home state in ways that are more personal -- and sometimes more gritty -- than much of the photography produced in Southeast.
A fifth generation Alaskan who has lived in Juneau her whole life apart from college, Helmar is now preparing to refocus on a new home environment. She’s headed to New York City, where she’ll be pursing a masters in photography at Columbia University, a highly competitive program that accepts only a couple students a year.
“It’s crazy,” Helmar said of her acceptance. “It’s like winning the lottery.”
She’s headed out later this month, but before she goes she’ll have one more First Friday show of her work at Studio 154 on Franklin Street downtown, above the Liquor Cache. The show will include a wide range of her work, from early Polaroids and film shots she took at age 21 to shots taken last year during a photography workshop in Iceland.
Some of the earlier work, taken when she was working as a bartender at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar 10 years ago, has been collected into a book, appropriately named “Last Call,” which she will offer in a limited quantity. The book, a collection of portraits of bar patrons and others, offers an honest look at a topic that can be tough to broach, especially in a city as small as Juneau. Helmar presents the photos without captions or identifying text, reflecting her desire to show, rather than describe, qualify or judge her subjects.
“I just want to show the pictures and let people think what they want about it,” she said. “Let them tell their story -- I don’t want to tell their story.”
Helmar said for her the photos represent a time when she was “a young, naive person with wide open eyes,” easily shocked by what she heard and saw, but constantly curious about the people she met. It’s not a project she could have produced at that time, she said, needing the buffer of the intervening years to give her enough perspective and mental distance to put it out there.
“It feels like a positive thing to do out of a situation that is often really negative and self destructive for a lot of people -- if there’s something beautiful you can pull out of it. Two of the people in that book are dead.”
The work contained in the book, like many of Helmar’s photos, could be categorized as street photography, often defined as a subgenre of documentary photography. The work is also all done on film, a medium she learned to love under the tutelage of her father, Paul Helmar, a well-known local photographer who died in 2002. Paul Helmar first came to Alaska to photograph the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1974, and later opened a photography store in downtown Juneau. His lasting influences on his daughter’s work include a careful attention to the physical craft of photography as well as the art -- she spent a lot of time in his darkroom as a kid. And like her dad, who studied visual anthropology under John Collier in San Francisco, Helmar is drawn to human subjects, despite the fact that such work is far more difficult to sell.
“If I’m bored doing something I’m not really happy,” she said. “I’m never bored by people and that’s what I love to focus on. But honestly, most people don’t want a picture of another a person hanging in their house. You can’t sell it.”
The body of work that has so far earned her the most commercial success is “Honeymoon Tonight,” a series of impressionistic, close-up images of rust and paint-covered old boats in Sitka harbor that she printed on aluminum and showed at the Juneau Douglas City Museum in 2011. A couple of the pieces from that show will be for sale at Studio 154 on Friday.
Also included in the show will be images Helmar took while in Iceland, where she attended an intensive photography workshop led by Mary Ellen Mark in Reykjavik last year. Some of the Reykjavik images also went into a book, but it was expensive to produce and Helmar only made 10 copies, which she distributed to those who had contributed to her travel fund. Helmar said she hopes to do a full show of that work at some point in the future, perhaps after a return trip.
Helmar took the Iceland trip during a busy year: she married to Matt Adams, received her master’s degree in secondary education from Univeristy of Alaska Southeast and began work as a teacher at Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School. Though she loves teaching, and says she would have been happy doing it for 20 years, she also felt a kind of restlessness.
“For many women, when you marry someone, everybody else’s idea about you changes,” she said. “I felt so much pressure that whole year leading up to getting married about settling down, doing this, that and the other thing.”
She saw the trip as a kind of “last hurrah.” But that’s not the way it worked out. The workshop with Mark was so rewarding, it inspired Helmar to rethink her plans, sending her on a completely different trajectory, one that eventually pointed her toward Columbia.
“(The workshop) made me realize that’s what I really wanted to do. I was around these great photographers, and I was pushing myself harder than I ever have. I spent two weeks just focused on making work and people were evaluating it. And it just sort of set me on fire, in a way.”
She came back and applied to handful of graduate programs, including Columbia, deciding that she’d be OK with either outcome.
“(I thought) if I don’t get in, I love teaching, I’m happy, I’ve got a great house, I love my husband, I’ll have some kids, I’ll settle down. That will be world’s way of telling me ‘simmer down, cool your jets.’”
But then Columbia called, and soon she was sitting in a room with four high profile interviewers, including Susan Kismaric, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and Thomas Roma, the head of the photography program at Columbia. They asked tough questions, she said, while scrutinizing her work with expert eyes.
“As a photographer, it was like taking your clothes off in front of somebody. ‘Well, here I am!’”
The interview went well, but ended on a tense note after the subject of finances came up, and Helmar figured she’d blown it. Then, while riding in an cab in a questionable neighborhood after shooting revelers at the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, she got a call from Roma, telling her he wanted to offer her a place in the program.
“I think I literally said, ‘Are you s***** me?’ And he said ‘No, I’m not kidding.’”
Since then, life has been hectic, as Helmar and her husband adjust to the huge life change and get ready to go. For the past few months, Helmar’s been working three jobs to help save up, including a bartending gig at the Alaskan — an experience she says has brought her full circle and given her perspective on that time in her life as she gears up for the next chapter.
“‘Last Call’ is symbolic,” she said. “It’s sort of the last call for me, sort of a rounding up of my last 10 or 11 years living in Juneau.”
Both Helmar and her husband love Alaska, and hope to return at some point, but they haven’t made any decisions about what will happen after the two years at Columbia are over. Things drawing them back to Alaska include Adams’ job with the US Forest Service, Helmar’s large Juneau-based family on her mom’s side — the Metcalfe clan — and Alaska’s commitment to the arts.
“I don’t have any expectations,” Helmar said. “I just know where I’m going. I just want to work.”