Helen K. Garber is known for her night urban landscapes taken in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Venice, Rome, and Paris. Her work resides in many prestigious collections including LACMA, the George Eastman House, International Museum of Film and Photography in New York, the Brooklyn Museum, The Huntington Library, the archives of the Venice Biennale and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California. She received the 2014 Santa Monica Artist Fellowship and has lived in Santa Monica, CA with her husband, Dr. Stuart Garber and various Spaniels since 1982. She maintains a studio on Ocean Front Walk, Venice Beach. Her work Undulations is on exhibit at Leica Gallery Los Angeles until August 31, and she’ll host an artist’s talk there on Sunday, August 16 at 2:00 p.m.
Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: Fine art photography for collectors, books, gallery, museum and public installations. I work in print, photo-based mixed media incorporating encaustic medium + projections and group installations which I direct with an amazing core group of art professionals.
Q: What genre are your photos?
A: I have shot everything except wedding photography as a profession. I have concentrated on fine art since 2002. The subject matter can be night urban landscapes, which I am most known for, street life, domesticated or wild animals, landscapes, off the hip street photography and photo-based mixed media incorporating encaustic medium. I use the Photoshop layer principal on creating an assemblage with different layers printed on different handmade papers creating surreal imagery of road side ruins. I’ve shot images over the past three years on road trips through the Southwest.
Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: Having a talent to take great photos has been a passport to an interesting and adventurous life.
Q: Besides your photographic images, you’ve done multi-media productions and other art projects. Would you describe yourself as a full-time photographer or do you prefer the term artist?
A: Photo-based multi-media artist, installation director and curator. I write and am a at-large editor for Tim Andersen’s Shadow and Light online magazine. I also teach photo workshops for Otis College of Art and Design, Emerging Focus, Photo LA and the Skirball Cultural Center.
Q: When did you first become interested in photography?
A: My dad taught me when I was a child, and I became passionate about photography by the time I was 16. I won my first prize as a photographer in grade school, when my dad taught me to use his 2 ¼ Voigtlander to document onions growing under various circumstances. My parents gave me a Minolta 101 for my high school graduation present.
I shot as an amateur until the late 1980s when I was invited backstage with my camera to photograph the members of Le Cirque du Soleil. My husband was their chiropractor when they visited here in Santa Monica and his contact arranged for my time under the tent with them. I had just gotten my first motor drive for my Nikons, which allowed me to focus more on what I was shooting. You didn’t have to take your eye away from the viewfinder to advance the film. The images were very well received by the amazing troupe of performers and I was allowed back the next time they returned. The response gave me the emotional support to pursue photography as a full-time career. Since 1990, I have fully immersed myself in the medium.
Q: Can you provide some background information on these images and the exhibition?
A: I have lived and worked by Santa Monica Bay for over 30 years. This set of images is my homage to the mystical light that envelopes the bay most mornings and evenings. Normally I present my work in black-and-white, but I was so impressed with the color algorithms of the sensor from the Leica M (Typ 240), that Titano Cruz, master printer, and myself painstakingly incorporated the color in mostly black-and-white files. We never did this before, it was an excruciating exercise in unlimited choices, but we held fast and came up with a new concept that we executed quite successfully. Leica would have allowed me free use of their small black frames, but I envisioned the work to be presented large format to give the viewer the sense of the openness of the Santa Monica Bay experience, printed some 48” x 70” and framed in white to expand each story rather than contain it in black.
Fortunately, I live relatively close to the gallery (not so close in rush hour) and was able to attend a number of different exhibitions before we presented Undulations at Leica Gallery Los Angeles. The space is so elegant and beautiful, but it has a design glitch in terms of presenting imagery behind glass or plexi. The skylight produces glare on the glass and it is difficult to see the images during the day. Since it is summer and the gallery closes at 6:00 p.m., it would have meant that my work could only have been viewed at its best on opening night. So we made the unusual decision to spray the paper for protection and present the work without glass. The collector will be able to have it delivered with plexi, but for the gallery, only the piece hanging on the first level is encased.
The opening night audience loved it and Paris, the gallery director, has told me that the viewers are enjoying seeing the print without the obstruction of glass between them. It allows them to be more drawn into the imagery.
Q: Did you use any special techniques to create such large images from the Leica M’s image files, and what was your overall impression of the camera’s performance in such a demanding application?
A: Titano uses Geniune Fractals to raise the resolution of the images. The image file is 20” x 300 dpi and can be rezzed up to 100” wide without loss of resolution. If budget was not an option, the images would have been even larger. The gorgeous, large space of Leica Gallery LA allows for large work to be exhibited properly.
This was a very expensive exhibit to produce. I was offered the use of the gallery’s 24” wide black frames for free, but felt that the work screamed to be larger and framed in white. My husband Stuart is very supportive and we took money out of our emergency funds to produce the work as I had envisioned it, with, of course, the hope that collectors and museum curators would want to purchase the work to add the work to their collections. We priced the work very fairly to help make that happen.
Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?
A: Luscious and erotic depictions of waves, birds and light, hence the title of the show: Undulations. A combination of the best aspects of a color and black-and-white print.
Q: What do you hope the viewer takes away from looking at them?
A: The feedback has been wonderful. People feel drawn into the lush imagery. The images evoke excitement and sensual pleasure. A clearer understanding of how we see differently living by the beach than someone in Santa Fe, for example. The artists who live there present brilliantly colored work as an effect of living in strong sunlight most of the year. Here, we basically see in black-and-white with a hint of color coming through until the marine layer breaks and the sun allows us to see deep color.
Q: This shot really captures what it must feel like to be a bird soaring freely above the shoreline, and also conveys a strong and serene sense of place. Do you concur and what were you thinking when you composed this shot and pressed the shutter release? Please also provide the tech data including lens, exposure and ISO.
A: I had received an email that Friday morning that it was time to return the borrowed camera. I asked to keep it over the weekend and return on Monday and went to Gold’s Gym Venice to work out. It was a very unusual occurrence, but a heavy fog rolled in about 11:30 a.m. I rode my bike to the Santa Monica Pier as it felt like a gift from above. Amazingly the fog held for a couple of hours, long enough for me to shoot a couple hundred images of that spectacular light from many points of the pier. The light changed constantly as the bright sun kept coming through like a theatrical follow spot.
So I was feeling blessed to be able to be enjoying this extraordinary moment that I felt would be the basis for the Leica show. I had taken some very interesting images while having the camera, but I felt none were in my expected style and wanted to bring the camera to the place and light I am most comfortable with. Taken with the Leica M (Typ 240), 24 mm, ISO 500, 750 speed, f/16.
Q: This image is the only one in this portfolio that was evidently created using layers encaustic mixed media. Presumably it starts out with a photographic image but can you give us a more precise idea of how this process is executed. Also how do you select which images to use with this technique, and what are its artistic and technical advantages?
A: I have been working with encaustic medium since 2008 and taken a number of workshops with great artist/teachers. It is a very magical medium; melted wax opens portals to mystical experiences. It is based on Photoshop principals, cubism, surrealism, all those art history and studio courses come together to allow me to do this. There is a layer of book pages glued onto a wood panel, then three views of a decaying gas station we came across on a road trip. I put the files together in Photoshop and then work the files until I see the final composition.
Each view is printed on a different handmade paper. I only have a small printer, so there are many prints to spread the image 30 – 40 inches depending on the size of the piece. I layer the prints, hold them together with melted wax, which could be painted or poured on to the surface and trim a lot of the image with an Exacto knife. There is a lot of additive and subtractive sculptural technique with all sorts of carving tools. Then I draw in some details with oil pastels. You have to fuse each layer with a heat gun so the wax will adhere to the lower layer. It is a lot of physical work and allows me to get away from the computer. The first piece I created was sold through the Photo Review Auction to a collector who donated his collection to the MOMA Dublin, Ireland. The piece was on exhibit in 2010 and was published in the catalogue and resides in their permanent collection. Photo LA 2014 gave me a solo exhibit booth with the work. dnj Gallery gave me a solo show of earlier work in 2012. The beeswax has a great aroma and I frame it in antique wood taken from the Santa Monica Pier, bookstores, the Santa Monica Historic District. So the wood has great energy and the piece emits a life of its own. I have a whole series of crumbling gas stations that I shot with Leica cameras that I will use for the rest of the series. It is different and fun, no one else’s but my own.
Q: This image is a superb composition that manages to be totally serene, amazingly dramatic, and emotionally compelling, all at the same time. What vantage point were you shooting from to capture this transcendent pattern of life image and what does it mean to you personally?
A: I shot straight down from the pier. The camera is parallel to the waves as best as possible. I have been meditating on the swirls for over 30 years and began to shoot them in different light and tide heights since 2012. I won the 2014 Santa Monica Artist Fellowship for the body of work.
Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?
A: Leica Gallery LA opened and one of my past representatives, Annie Seaton, was hired to direct the gallery. I came to the opening and listened to Mary Ellen Mark and saw the beautiful space. I came again and again and saw the space as a wonderful center of photography and a beautiful space to present a body of work. Then Annie hired Paris Chong, the present director, someone I have known and worked with a number of times over the past decade, so I knew my association with the gallery was meant to be. And I began to shoot with different Leica cameras. I was very lucky to enjoy the Q for a few weeks in preparation for the marketing launch at the store. The Q is a lot of fun and also very comfortable to use and wear all day around your neck. After two car accidents, a light camera is as important to me as a fine camera and the Q fits both needs.
Q: Where can people go if they want to learn more about you, sign up for one of your workshops, or see more of your work?
A: Come to Leica Gallery LA this Sunday, August 16 at 2:00 p.m. to hear me talk about the exhibit in person. Hahnemühle USA is sponsoring a 16 x 20 folio containing the complete show printed on Hahnemühle Photo Rag® Satin. It is a beautiful fine art paper that allows the texture to remain outside the image area. I will be presenting the first one at Sunday’s art talk and they will be available for sale.
My next workshop begins October 19 through Otis College of Art and Design where we will spend an evening shooting the sun, the moon and the fun of Santa Monica Pier and another shooting Venice Beach, plus an evening learning techniques and history of night photography and two review nights.
Thank you for your time, Helen!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Helen and schedule an appointment to stop by her studio on her website. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.