Tim Leeds Havre Daily News firstname.lastname@example.org
Times have changed at Helmbrecht Studio for the first time in more than 62 years, customers walking in the door will not usually be greeted by Alice Philippi. “I’ve been thinking about retiring, waiting for the right time,” said Philippi, 80, as she filled in at Helmbrecht’s Tuesday, more than a month after she officially retired. “I thought this was a good time to quit, so Feb. 11 was my last day.” Steve Helmbrecht, owner of the business, said he is inviting everyone in the community to an open house at the studio, located at 224 4th Ave., Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to visit with Philippi. “It’s an open house for people to come by to say, Hi,’ and reminisce about her time and the history of the area,” Helmbrecht said. He said people would be amazed by the dramatic changes Philippi can talk about, not only in the photography profession but the generations of change in the area; “how she has seen it from her eyes in a place where we record history.” A lifetime of photography Philippi started working in photography before she even came to Havre at age 18. Her father, A.M. Allison, opened a photography studio in Chinook about 1910, and she was working there by the time she was 11 or 12. She started helping sort photographs, waiting on customers in the front, sweeping up, chores like that, she said. “Just general things kids could do,” Philippi said. She said she did little of the photographic work herself. “I took a couple of pictures when he was out of town,” she said. But she left her father’s business after she graduated from Chinook High School in May 1945, moving to Havre to start attending Northern Montana College, now Montana State University-Northern. “I needed money so I started working here the same year, October 1945,” she said. Philippi said that, at first, she was working part-time while she went to college. She started while the studio was run by Myrt Fullmer, but said she didn’t realize Fullmer had already sold the business. Fullmer continued to work through the first of 1946, Philippi said, but the new owner, Vern Helmbrecht, moved in November 1945. So started a lifetime of working for Helmbrecht’s. “He asked me to stay through Christmas, and I never went back to college,” she said. She worked for Vern Helmbrecht until he retired, and started working for Steve Helmbrecht when he bought his father’s business in 1982. Helmbrecht said having Philippi there made it easy to take over, with her knowledge of photography, the business and the customers. “I could just slip into the routine of being a photographer,” he said. “It just ran like clockwork.” Philippi said she has actually worked with three generations of Helmbrechts. She told Steve Helmbrecht she wouldn’t stay to work for his son, Keegan, if he took over the business. Despite that, a couple of years ago she did work with Keegan Helmbrecht while he covered a dance at Harlem High School. “I swore I wouldn’t work for Keegan, but I worked with him,” she said. Changes in the field Philippi has seen incredible changes in the field of photography over the years. When she started, all of the work was with black and white pictures, with proofs made by laying the negatives over paper on a framed piece of glass and setting them in the sun. By the time she retired, she had gone through doing color developing and into the age of digital photography. “Right around 2000 we started the computer age,” Philippi said, adding she never got very involved with producing the digital photos. “I just know as much about it as I need to.” Steve Helmbrecht said otherwise. “It’s amazing. We went totally digital here in 2001. I guess what’s amazing is for a 72-year-old woman to go from analog film to a digital world. “That woman has probably seen more of a change in photography than George Eastman (the founder of Eastman Kodak Company,)” Helmbrecht said. Watching and recording people through the years Philippi said part of her pleasure in her years of work has been watching families grow through time. “What I find cool about the business here, as far as I’m concerned, is the generations,” Philippi said. She said a customer came in recently with her son to look at his senior pictures. The mother said, “You were working here when I had my senior pictures taken,” Philippi said. She said she has had some amusing times in the business. One day, she was helping a customer who wanted some prints framed and matted when some women came in the door. While talking to the elderly woman who had an appointment for a photo shoot, Philippi told her that the standard practice was to have the lenses taken out of glasses and have the subject just wear the frames, to prevent reflection. She said she asked one of the other ladies who came in if she would take the subject’s glasses over to an eye doctor’s office a couple of blocks away to have the lenses removed, and the lady agreed. When she brought the glasses back, Philippi told her she was welcome to watch the photographs being taken. “She said, I’m not with her,’” Philippi said. “They happened to come in at the same time.” She added that she has had many funny experiences while working at the studio, but not all were as amusing. “I’ve had my share of unhappy customers,” she said. “I’ve made many apologies to somebody.” But she had an excellent teacher for customer service in Vern Helmbrecht, she said, which continued with his son. “(Vern) was good. I learned all kinds of dealing- with-people skills from him,” she said. “Both he and Steve are kind of laid back.” She said she may not have had much tangible thanks from people “I have gotten a monetary tip about three times in all the time I have been here” but she has had some verbal thanks. One customer came in and needed a passport photo immediately while Steve Helmbrecht was out Philippi said. Normally, she would take passport photos if the system to take them was set up, but not if it was not prepared. That time Philippi made an exception. “I helped her so she could get her passport in an hour,” she said. As a thank-you, the customer brought Philippi a brooch with an “A” on it. “I love that little brooch. I wear it all the time,” she said. Another aspect of working in a business with just two people was that, if the photographer had to go out, she had to be at the business, Philippi said. “I never take time off. I bet I haven’t had a week off for illness for all the time I’ve been here,” she said. One day Philippi was sick and working and a customer commented to her on how ill she was. Philippi agreed. “About a half hour later she came back with a bowl of chicken soup. I will never forget her,” Philippi said. But her favorite memories probably are about watching people grow, working with their baby pictures, their school sports photos, their graduation and wedding pictures and then the pictures of their children. “I feel like part of the family without being part of the family,” Philippi said. “They don’t know I’m aware of their milestones but I’m aware of them. “And I remember them,” she added. “I mean nothing to them but their events are part of what I do.” What to do in retirement when not working Philippi said she will miss working for the studio, but that it was time to retire. On Feb. 11, she said, she slipped on ice and snow on the steps at her house, falling and landing on her back on the bottom step. While she didn’t break any bones, it did bruise some ribs, and she decided it was time to retire, she said. It’s actually her second retirement Philippi said she quit working in 2000, and was off for three years. “Then Steve called to see if I would come back, which I did,” she said. Helmbrecht said Philippi was a valuable asset for the studio. “It was always so easy, to have this wealth of knowledge at your fingertips,” he said. “She knew the business and knew photographs so well.” He added that, aside from her knowledge and ability, Philippi herself will be missed. “It’s kind of like a part of your store is not quite there,” he said. She said she is not sure what she will do to keep busy in her retirement, although she has offered to fill in at the studio as needed. “Somebody has to hold down the fort and keep the phone answered. I’d be glad to do that,” she said. “Everybody has to be somewhere. If you can still be productive, you might as well be doing what you love. But it was time (to retire,)” she said.