A Family Affair
The man who grew up with photography never wanted to be a photographer.
The man whose photographer father encouraged him not to follow in his footsteps spends his days surrounded by tripods and 8-by-10s and shelves packed with black, wooden frames.
The man, who as a college student at the University of Montana majored in journalism, dreamed of being a radio or television news reporter.
This is Steve Helmbrecht. And he's a photographer.
"I had planned on going into electronic journalism or becoming some radio announcer or TV commentator," Helmbrecht said Wednesday as he descended the stairs of his basement studio. "But I didn't like what I was doing."
Helmbrecht's dad, Vern, advised his son not to look to photography as a career. He'd have little time for himself, Vern would say.
"He thought you work too hard as a photographer. He wanted me to have a life outside photography," Helmbrecht said. "He didn't want me to be a part of it mainly because there were too many other career opportunities."
Vern Helmbrecht came to Havre after serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was a photographer in Scobey before the war. He retired in 1981 and was ready to sell the business.
His son, fresh off a year in Minneapolis working as a technical representative for a company called Camera Art, bought the business from his father. He was 29 years old.
"At that time, I was at least as good, if not better, than the photographers I worked with," Helmbrecht said.
The business kept the same name and Fourth Avenue location it had since its opening in 1946 Helmbrecht Studio. The building, Helmbrecht said, has actually housed a photography studio since the 1920s. It was formerly owned by Mert Fullmer, who operated Fullmer Studios.
Helmbrecht Studio, the now 50-year-old owner said, has evolved dramatically since he took over. His father, who died about three years ago, would be proud, Helmbrecht said.
"I know we're doing a phenomenal amount more business than when we started it," he said. "And when I first came here, we still had a color lab. Everything was done on film whereas today 90 percent of our work is filmless."
The advent of digital cameras, he said, has revolutionized his craft.
"Digital is only a tool, but I think it's a real advantage," Helmbrecht said. "You're still processing your images, but you process them in a different way than you did before. You're just not standing on your feet over a bunch of chemicals."
Digital cameras also simplify the retouching process, he said, which is crucial to Helmbrecht's business. About 90 percent of the work produced at Helmbrecht Studio is portraits. What used to take days or even weeks now takes a few minutes, using computer programs like Adobe Photoshop, he said.
Walk into Helmbrecht Studio. On the ground level, portraits of high school students and families adorn the walls and two large digital images of the Amtrak Empire Builder train rest in the window display. Nearby, behind the counter, three plaques hang on the wall. Each is from the Montana Professional Photographers Association, awards from the early 1990s.
In the basement, photography equipment new and old is scattered about. A color printer dispenses prints with speed.
The man who never thought he'd be a photographer now can't get away from it. And doesn't want to.
"A lot of people can't wait to the day they retire, but I never see myself retiring," Helmbrecht said. "I don't know what I'd do and have as much fun."