BWW Interview: At Home With Helane Blumfield, Photographer Par Excellence
Helane Blumfield is a two-timer. When she walks into a cabaret room, she could be there as a singer or she could be there as a photographer, it's anyone's guess; whatever she is doing in that room, though, one thing is certain and that is the quality that Helane Blumfield delivers will be Grade-A.
Ms. Blumfield came to both cabaret performing and cabaret photography after a long career in the fashion industry that informed and nurtured her talent behind the camera. That exposure to the art form combines with her passion for her work and for the entertainers she shoots to make her the photographer of choice for many. The in-house archive photographer for The Laurie Beechman Theatre, Blumfield took a freelance job for the Manhattan Association of Cabarets that yielded stunning black and white portraits for the 2019 MAC Awards. Later that year, Helane became the official photographer of The 2019 Cabaret Convention, creating breathtaking in-performance shots of the four night event. While mastering these prestigious jobs, Helane Blumfield worked in her studio to create headshots and publicity photos for the artists of the community, and she went into the clubs to photograph artists in action. With boundless energy, Helane Blumfield occasionally set down her camera to appear in the lauded cabaret show 4 Women, 4 Stories and the MAC Award-winning Meg Flather Songs: A Cabaret Sisterhood. Near the end of 2019, Helane Blumfield accepted an invitation (ok, I begged her) to come on board at Broadway World Cabaret as our official cabaret photojournalist, photographing the likes of Vanessa Williams, Eden Espinosa, The Skivvies and MAC Award recipient Sean Patrick Murtagh.
Helane without shows to shoot, and I without shows to review, this is the perfect time to talk with a photographer that I have come to respect, to kind of idolize and maybe even be a little envious of now and then, about the work that has given her the reputation for being one of the best in the business.
1. Helane, how did you come to be interested in photography?
Early on as an art director, then a creative director, I was always inspired by the photographers that I was fortunate to work with. The inspiration eventually became a desire to take the photos myself. I was lucky that the photographers were generous and taught me so much. I became a sponge and learned everything I could from those photographers.
2. You have spent the last year documenting some of the great performers of cabaret and concerts. Is that where you saw your photography going when you first started?
Not at all. I was a fashion photographer for many years. My last full-time position was SVP Creative director for Macy's. When I took that job, I gave up taking photos. The job was so encompassing it needed all of my focus. About two years ago, I left my position to go out on my own as a freelance creative director. At the same time, I slowly started to take pictures. Lennie Watts caught on to it and was the first to encourage me back into photography. He asked me to photograph last year's MAC awards, and I haven't stopped since. (Photo: Bizzie LeBois)
3. Photographing artists in action is a special skill, how did you develop the talent?
I think passion and inspiration develop talent, and there is no shortage of that in the cabaret community. Consistency also develops skills, and I was fortunate enough to receive that from The Laurie Beechman. Since May, I have been doing all of the social media for The Laurie Beechman and The West Bank Cafe. Part of my work is photographing two shows a week. Each show is unique, which means I learn something new every time I shoot. I also shoot food upstairs at The West Bank Café. That's fun, and we get to try the food after the shoot! (Photo: Michael "Spookey" Louis)
4. It is also a nerve-wracking skill (I know from experience) -- what is your experience on an average in-performance shoot?
You are so right about that. It is entirely nerve-wracking. All the shows are so different. It is easier with a single performer and fewer musicians. You can concentrate on taking the photo. But then there are the drag and burlesque shows that are non stop action. It never lets up until it's over. The surprise is when you get home and download the images. It's exhilarating when you view the photos and see the "one." (Photo: Boylesque)5. You also do studio work, notably shooting beautiful portraits for the MAC Awards last year and headshots for cabaret performers. Tell me about the development of your lighting technique. My lighting technique is the same as it was when I was primarily a fashion photographer. Simple. When I first started shooting years ago, I tried every light and every camera. Eventually, I learned what was right for me and my pictures. I like to keep the set up simple so that I can concentrate on the subject. The best part of photographing portraits/headshots it getting to know the person you are photographing. I like to talk to each person and have them speak to me. Through that conversation, the walls come down, and magic happens.
6. You are a renowned performer. Does your work onstage offer insight that informs your work behind the camera?
First, thank you for saying I am a "renowned performer" No-one has ever said that to me. Since I started photographing the cabaret community, so many people know me mostly as a photographer. My performance background really helps me with my photography. I take pictures of people the way I would like them taken of myself. I also have great respect for the show and the performer. During each show, I am careful not to make myself known or disrupt from moments that need silence. I once told a booker I was a "photo ninja" ;) (Photo: Alice Ripley)
7. Who have been your influences, photographically?
So many! I have been fortunate to work with some of the best photographers. My most significant influence is Albert Watson. I worked with him early on in my career. In my opinion, he is a genius. I am forever grateful for the time I spent with him as an art director and to call him a friend. Also, I have always been a huge fan of Annie Lebowitz. I never got to work with her, but for my birthday, I was given her "Portrait Master Class." It is next up on my quarantine to-do list. (Photo: Vanessa Nicole Ortiz)
8. What is it that you love about being a photographer?
The intimacy of taking a picture. There is nothing like looking into the through the lens and seeing what is on the other side. It's as if you are the only person seeing what you are viewing. There are so many more things I love about being a photographer, but what I love most about being a photographer in the cabaret community is the "community." I feel through my lens that I've gotten to know the community on a different level. It has been a unique privilege.
9. Who have you not photographed that you would love to?
Before COVID and the quarantine, I was scheduled to photograph Melissa Errico and Bridget Everett. They both remain at the top of the list, and I look forward to it when it happens. Also at the top of the list is Patti LuPone. We are both from Long Island. It was my childhood dream to be an actress and to have someone so close to where I grew up make it on Broadway was everything. It has been a dream of mine to meet her, and now it's a goal to photograph her. (Photo: Jackie Beat)
10. What would you say is your greatest strength as a photographer?
Love. I have always said, "Love what you do and do what you love" I love being a photographer. That, without a doubt, is my greatest strength.
Helane Blumfield can be found online at her WEBSITE
Marta Sanders & Leann Borghesi in SHOW BROADS