Helen L. Collen has always found ways to express her creativity, from drawing and editing comic strips at age 10 to inventing special looks for people in film, television, and theater as an adult. Now she is displaying a different side of her artistry by bringing her visual work behind the lens to the public. On May 20, Collen held a special one-day exhibit of her photography called Gratitude at 393 Broadway in SoHo. It featured 50 of her portraits, landscape shots, and concert photos that included the bands KISS, REO Speedwagon, and Def Leppard (for whom her husband Phil plays guitar). I interviewed Helen as we strolled through the exhibit and picked out different photos to discuss. Some of them are included in this feature. Peruse her website, helencollenphotography.com, to see and learn more about her work. Hopefully, she will return to NYC in the fall with another exhibit.
How has being a stylist, a wardrobe supervisor, and costume designer translated into photography?
Landscape dressing, subject dressing. I get to apply what I see. To be a costume designer, you have to visualize a character or whatever atmosphere you want to create. I think with a camera the atmosphere is already created, and artistically you just have to be able to notice that and then capture it. For me, it’s the same eye really.
If you’re designing clothes, you’ll notice certain poses that people look good in. Does that translate when you’re getting all these concert shots? Do you think the exact same way?
I do. Absolutely. Live photography is actually about the physicality of the subject more than anything because you can take a shot of anyone doing anything regular. But I think iconic shots or iconic poses—when you think of Freddie Mercury leaning back—it’s all [about] what you’ll remember. You hope that you capture something that someone will remember. Although my husband is very memorable in every shot. [laughs]
With digital cameras you can just snap photos like crazy without worrying about the cost of film. How many shots do you take at a concert?
The great thing with Phil is that because I know his show so well, I know when to shoot and then when to continuously shoot. So I can walk away with maybe 200, 300 photos easy.
What about these other bands you’ve shot?
You know, Dave [Amato] with REO [Speedwagon] is so great because he would tell me when shots were coming up, and one of the shots was that great threesome. While he was on stage playing, he looked at me like, ‘It’s coming up.’ While the other photographers were getting the shots of them wherever they were, I just stayed in place and when they hit I was just dead center. So it’s easy, and after a while your eye just sees it.
A lot of your shots appear on silver metallic prints. Could you briefly describe that process and why you chose to use it?
Vibrachrome is the process I use which prints my photos on metallic medium. It allows colors to pop more vibrantly and my black and whites to gleam even more in contrast. I love the way that the black and white looks on the Vibrachrome. We see so many classic photos in black and white print, which is cool, but I just thought it would be interesting to do something different.
Lahaina Dock, taken on the island of Maui, is printed on silver and looks a bit surreal.
It’s a dock near Main Street. There are shops and restaurants and everything all along there, and then just out of nowhere this boat docked at the pier. It was so in contrast to all of the hullabaloo that was going on with everybody buying souvenir tee shirts and stuff. But this was deserted.
Then there is this shot of people in a rooftop pool looking out at a city. It makes them look like they’re in a lake above the city.
It’s called The Voyeurs. These people were just looking out over Singapore in the highest hotel there. Anytime they show it in movies, it’s always slanted almost like a lotus. I like watching people, and I like watching people watch people even more.
Which of these other photos here do you have a fondness for?
My Kyoto beauty.
Yeah. She was in Kyoto Gardens in Japan and I was shooting, and there was a column between me and her. She stepped back—because a lot of the Japanese women were in costume playing a role—to fix her kimono. She was fixing the back of her kimono actually and doing it so that no one would know. But I caught her. It’s so classic. She was so regal. She didn’t look like she was doing that. And then my other favorite is The Bride, which is with the photographer catching the bride [on film].
A shot of a person capturing a person in action.
Yes. Australia. A bride photo in front of a church. There’s a young lady who was standing about four feet away—that’s her shadow—and her job was to take the veil, raise it in the air, and drop it, and the photographer was trying to capture it. So on about the sixth or seventh go, Phil and I were walking by. I looked at the shot and was like, ‘Why is this guy not getting it?’ I just caught the shot. I thought he was actually brilliant, too. I loved his pose. I love the fact that he’s signifies persona non grata, the photographer. It was so obvious—I could have named it The Bride or The Photographer.
We live now in a society where we’re so used to watching and recording life through our phones. It’s getting weird, huh?
It is weird, especially having been a teenager in the eighties. I was just talking to my stepson about that. He was talking to me about what New York’s Greenwich Village used to be like. He’s telling me it’s Bohemian now, and I’m like, ‘No, it’s not.’ We were a social culture. You would hang out and go to the park, go to a bar, tons of music showcases, tons of artistic showcases, none of them fancy. You would just go and chill with your friends. We would go out to the pizza parlor and hang for hours. It is different now. But in my spirit, I still feel the same, so I try and capture classic things or things that I want to be remembered. Moments you want to be remembered.
I’ve met many parents whose kids can’t watch movies or shows that were made before they were born because they’re not used to the older, practical effects or even the look of them.
With Jaxson, we watch back in the day kung fu flicks like Five Deadly Venoms, all the Bruce Lee movies, all the Jet Li movies, all the Jackie Chan movies, like when Jackie was young. He loves that stuff. He watches Andy Griffith.
How old is your son Jaxson now?
He’s going to be one tomorrow. He watches Magilla Gorilla. He loves Tom and Jerry. Bugs Bunny. Yosemite Sam. We do old school. We want him to be aware, and when he’s old enough to understand I Love Lucy,he’llwatch that too.
What else should we know about your photography?
After Jaxson was born, I had a bleed that they couldn’t find so I had four major abdominal surgeries. I flatlined during two of them. They resuscitated me. When Jaxson was being born, his heart was stopping with contractions. I made it through all of that and the healing, then decided to actually share my artistry. That’s what I’m doing as much as possible. Travel and share, travel and share, travel and share. It’s not a science project. It’s not complicated. I’m not complicated. I love doing this.
I don’t do costume design for theater anymore. I was a resident designer for 15 years at the Billie Holiday Theatre in Brooklyn. After basically designing, designing, designing, I moved to California and got married [nine years ago]. Design ebbed, but then it picked up in photography. But I had been shooting for years already.
How did you get into photography?
It started because I was doing film. Script supervisors are responsible for continuity and sometimes even for wardrobe.
You took all your photos for wardrobe?
Script supervisors should. But I would take my own photos, and that went from me not putting the camera down to then taking
behind the scenes and actors talking. Then the Billie Holiday Theatre hired me as their still photographer, so I would send [my work] to the media. I was already having to be very mindful of the eye, of the things I was taking. Then I just transferred it into a more free-flowing vibe of stuff that I like to see. It’s a journey, and I’m still on it.
Be sure to visit helencollenphotography.com to learn more about Helen’s incredible work!