Patrice Helmar: Reykjavík


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Interview between our outstanding contributing editor, Efrem Zelony-Mindell, and "badass" photographer, Patrice Helmar.

EFREM ZELONY-MINDELL: Excited to be talking to you about your work from Reykjavík. Why don't we start by telling a bit about the why and what of the work we are looking at here.

PATRICE HELMAR: I first went to Reykjavík in 2012 to attend a workshop with Mary Ellen Mark. At the time I was a public school teacher, and bartender living in Alaska. I'd never had the luxury of devoting all of my time to making photographs. I fell in love with Iceland, or more accurately Icelanders. Being there was familiar and foreign at the same time. Iceland has so much culturally and politically going for it that I wish for as an Alaskan - as an American. Northerners share certain traits: strong mythologies, love of drink, resilience, an understanding of darkness and light - both in our physical world, and within. 

EZM: Your practice of people is personally fascinating to me. You make first interactions personal; it reads in the work. Is there a most important part for you in gaining peoples' intrigue?

PH: No matter what we do as people, or photographers, our intentions in regard to others are clear. Very few people are able to hide how they feel. If I can avoid inserting myself, I do. It's not that I'm invisible, as some photographers describe themselves. I'm there. I show myself. I'm like a bull in a China Shop, hard to miss. A better door, than a window. I generally just smile, or nod - in New York, most people are so busy it's a non issue. If someone asks why I'm photographing them, I'm honest about it. Thomas Roma taught me that - if you think someone's beautiful, it's okay to say that. It works if you mean it.

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© Patrice Helmar

EZM: Do you find lasting relationships with these people? Maybe lasting isn't even important, passionate may be more significant?

PH: The photographs I made in Iceland, I spent days and nights with people. I'd follow folks home from the bar, and we'd spend evenings walking around the city together - or I'd find myself at an after hours party. I returned in 2014, two years later and met back up with people I'd photographed, and met new characters. My friend Dyrfínna is someone I met in my favorite bar in downtown Reykjavík. We're still in contact. I photographed her on both trips. We say, "I love you" to each other. 

Passion is possible, but it isn't always relevant. It's about making the work. The anecdotes don't matter - the photographs do. I'm not always going to be around to talk about them, and that's something I keep in mind.

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© Patrice Helmar

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© Patrice Helmar

EZM: If the photograph is most important then why the people? Is that just happenstance? 

PH: What I meant was my personal anecdotes don't matter. Recounting my experiences or feelings, and doing a song and dance to try to make someone care more about my work is cheap. It's in the photograph. Happenstance is important. Being ready to meet chance, yes that's part of it. I prefer the word luck, and that doesn't come often without a good amount of work. 

EZM: Are you excited about anything right now? Where's your luck looking these days?

PH: I wouldn't say I'm excited, but I'm hopeful. I keep making photographs, and that's life affirming. Luck is like the weather. I'm superstitious, and try not to talk about it. I grew up fishing in Alaska - if someone commented on it being nice out on the water, it was tempting fate. I'm always afraid of the other shoe falling.

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© Patrice Helmar

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© Patrice Helmar

EZM: I'm of the opinion that music and literature is pretty important to you. I also think it's pretty important to photography in general. I'd love to close by sharing a favorite ending that makes me think of your Reykavik work. I'll share mine, if you'll share me yours. Mine comes from John Logan's play RED.
 
Rothko: "You need to get out there now, into the thick of it, shake your fist at them, talk their ear off...
Make them look. When I was your age, art was a lonely thing: no galleries, no collecting, no critics, no money. We didn't have mentors. We didn't have parents. We were alone. But it was a great time, because we had nothing to lose and a vision to gain. Okay?"

PH: "It is a curious emotion, this certain homesickness I have in mind. With Americans, it is a national trait, as native to us as the roller-coaster or the jukebox. It is no simple longing for the home town or country of our birth. The emotion is Janus-faced: we are torn between a nostalgia for the familiar and an urge for the foreign and strange. As often as not, we are homesick most for the places we have never known." - Carson McCullers

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© Patrice Helmar

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All images © Patrice Helmar

Patrice Helmar is a graduate from Columbia University's MFA program. She lives and works in New York City where she teaches and lectures. Helmar has shown her work domestically and internationally at various institutions and galleries including the Jewish Museum, National Museum of Iceland, Houston Center for Photography, Fisher Landau Center, and the Anchorage Museum.

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