Back in the late 60s, after she flunked out of Ohio State because she decided she’d rather drink beer and raise hell than study, Helaine Garren returned to Chicago in shame and moved back in with her parents, who wanted her to marry a nice Jewish boy. Instead, she got a job in the finance office at Northwestern’s downtown campus and spent her lunch hours shooting pool on the table in the office basement with her friend Bonnie. “I had a perfect Mosconi bridge,” she recalls now. Later they took their act on the road to a series of seedy bars and pool halls where Bonnie would play all evening and Garren would stuff her pockets with her winnings.
In 1970, Garren went back to school at the Art Institute and signed up for a photography class with Hugh Edwards, the curator of prints and drawings. The first assignment was to take a series of photos. Garren thought back to what she calls her “bad girl” days and decided to shoot Bensinger’s, the legendary pool hall, then in at its final location at Clark and Diversey. (Its earlier Loop incarnation was the inspiration for Bennington’s, the pool hall in the movie The Hustler.)
“I had no idea it had such historic importance,” she says now. “I just thought it was a cool place. It had great characters and very dramatic lighting. I had no idea who these people were. I was so chicken-hearted, I came in with a telephoto lens. But then I was there so much, nobody noticed me anymore. I loved that place.”
Garren’s photos captured the drama of the pool hall in luminous black and white, the intense concentration of the players lining up shots and willing the balls to go into the right pockets. She shot the spectators, too, many of whom looked like they also had a stake in the outcome. Looking at some of those photos, you can almost taste the stale cigarette smoke in the back of your throat.
After she handed in her assignment, Edwards summoned her to his office. She watched as he separated the photos into two piles. “He pointed to one,” she remembers, “and said, ‘Those are the ones I would like to buy.’ It was the biggest honor of my entire life. I just about fainted.”
She wanted to give him the prints for free, but after he insisted upon paying, she asked for $5 apiece. And that, until recently, was the peak of her photography career. She didn’t want to do commercial photography, her camera got stolen, and she had to earn a living. She moved to Portland, Oregon, (though she retains her Chicago accent) and dumped the photos in the back of her closet.
Then one evening in 2002, she had her friend D.K. Holm over for dinner, and somehow they got to talking about pool halls, and Garren pulled out her old Bensinger’s pictures. Holm was, in Garren’s words, “no schlemiel.” He had been the film critic for Willamette Week. And, says Garren, “he was stunned. He said, ‘These are fantastic, they should be in a gallery.’ I was like, ‘Yeah right.'”
But she let Holm drag her around Portland to visit various galleries, and one curator, Chris Bennett at the Newspace Center for Photography, exhibited her work in 2004. “I was thunderstruck,” Garren says. “I raced around getting prints. And I thought that was the end of my 15 minutes. But several months ago, he called me up and said he wanted to print a book. I was flabbergasted. It was like an atomic bomb getting dropped on me.”
Bennett and his business partner Benny Wizansky had recently started up a small press, Nor’wester Books, and wanted their inaugural title to be a collection of Garren’s Bensinger’s photos. They made a mockup of the book and established a Kickstarter campaign to raise $25,000 to cover printing and binding costs for 1,000 copies. The book will include a reprint of an essay by David Mamet about Bensinger’s and a new introduction by Cat Adami, daughter of former Bensinger’s habitué Freddy the Beard Bentivegna. So far they’ve raised a little more than $11,000. There are four days to go.
So Garren, now 71, is doing what any pool hustler would do: she’s going to Vegas. This week happens to be the International Billiards & Home Recreation Expo, and Billiards Digest has allowed Garren some space in its booth to talk up the book. “If I don’t come up with the money in Vegas,” she says, “I’m gonna be sitting at the blackjack table. I did win $500 in Reno once.”
She’s also going to have dinner with Artie Bodendorfer, the former owner of Bensinger’s, who once made a road trip to Portland to meet Garren and see the photos. Alas, all she had then to show him, besides the few prints from her show, were negatives.
“The photos look so beautiful,” she says. “I can say that because it’s like another person took them, it was so long ago. I’m not comfortable with self-aggrandizement. I didn’t know I had talent. I knew I liked the magic of developing.”
The resources of Garren’s closet haven’t been extinguished. She knows she has a collection of pictures she took on an Art Institute-financed roadtrip through the American west and a series photos of gypsies in Scotland (where she lived for a time with her ex-husband, an artist from Glasgow who, she writes in a biographical note on the Kickstarter page, “wore a black leather motorcycle jacket lined with his old kilt”).
“I need to get back in,” she says. “I have no choice. The heat’s on.”