Helen and I spent a great deal of our time together talking about photography. She has not made any new pictures since the early 80’s.
“I do not miss it. I would not like it now. There are so many aliens on the streets now. They surely wouldn’t let me take their picture. It’s different now. No, not the same at all.”
She told me that when she shot, she left the apartment specifically for that purpose. In other words, she was not one to carry her camera with her wherever she went. She frequently used a special attachment for her viewfinder (Cartier-Bresson told her about it, though he never got one himself) that allowed her to point the camera in one direction and actually take the picture in another. “I would set my camera for a distance of twelve feet. Then I would go out on walks to take pictures. I would walk and walk… all day. When I saw something that looked interesting, my camera would be ready and I would quickly take the picture. I never talked to anyone. One man threatened to throw boiling water on me if I didn’t stop taking pictures on his street. Most people didn’t care, though.”
I asked if she thought she a voyeur.
“I was not a voyeur. I never looked at anything I wasn’t supposed to look at.” She narrowed her eyes as she looked me squarely in the face.
Helen told me she hates cameras. She has never seen a digital one.
“Do you want to see mine?
“No!” (She straightened her house coat and readjusted the way she was sitting.)
We talked about cropping and composition. I told her that one of the things I love about her pictures is the juxtaposition of shapes and forms and the way she used the edges of the frame. “What happens with picture taking – it’s all luck, you know.” I told her I have studied with Mary Ellen Mark, who absolutely forbade us students to crop. We had to compose in the frame.
“That’s nonsense!” She waved her hands above her head. “I always cropped. There is too much going on at once. You can’t possibly see it all when you take the picture. So you crop it later. That is when you really see what is going on.”
“Were you always looking?”
“No. Actually, my ears have always been more important to me than my eyes.”
“Do you prefer your black and white work to your color work?”
“No, I don’t have a preference. Color is easier than black and white, though.”
There are boxes of prints stacked all over the place in Helen’s apartment. She also has pictures stuck on the walls and the closet doors. Some are by her; some are cut out of newspapers and some are by others photographers. She showed me a print she traded for with Cartier-Bresson and a Saul Steinberg drawing she received from the artist as a gift. “He’s the greatest American artist.” In the bathroom are some faded and yellow newspaper photos of basketball and baseball players. I asked her if she was a sports fan. “No. They are just good pictures, that’s all.”
We sat down on the bed and looked through a box of her color pictures. I made comments; I think she liked watching me look at them. Every now and then, she’d say, “Yes, that’s a pretty good one.”
By now, she had warmed up to me. She asked me if I had her latest book. When I told her no, she went on a scavenger hunt throughout the entire apartment looking for a copy to give me. Her house coat flapped behind her as she moved about from room to room.
Then she asked a lot of questions about my life and family and work. She wanted to know if I had brought any of my prints to show her. She motioned for me come sit next to her. That's when she began conducting a critique - right there on the sofa, both of us staring into the monitor of my laptop.