By 1982, the partnership had dissolved, and Helm struck out on his own. He started American Portraits, deciding on the name because his bank account happened to be at American Bank. He hired Ron Duke, the top salesman at the first company he had worked for, and went about corrupting him. “Ron kind of looked like Billy Idol, but he was really a nerd,” Helm says. “Well, I got him, and I turned him into some wild animal. We went out and partied. I was, like, a bad influence for him. We took off, and we had Porsches and made all this money. People thought we were dealing drugs.”
His business was thriving, he was an Armani-clad nightlife fixture in the Dallas scene, but Helm was unhappy with the photography coming out of his shops. “When we started American Portraits, I hired these photographers,” he says. “We booked, like, all of these banks. We were really good at booking. And then the pictures came back, and they totally sucked. I mean, heads cut off, crazy s---. So I got this guy to teach me how to take basic portrait pictures, and I went out and started shooting for a while. I got pretty good at it, so I started training everybody.” Helm later parted ways with Duke after a disagreement over money, and he began diversifying his business, opening Hot Shots, akin to the ubiquitous Glamour Shots; Bode Fashion Photography; and Portrait Line 2000 in malls and shopping centers across the Southwest.
He also had a studio in Garland on Northwest Highway, where he shot upwards of 40 girls a day after coupons promising two-for-one 8-by-10 portraits for $40 caused business to spike. It was absurdly lucrative. And it put his name on the lips of countless Dallas women. “I think I photographed every freakin’ girl in Dallas,” he says. “It was crazy. And I knew every girl in Dallas. I’d go to a club, and every girl was, ‘Hey, Bode!’ ‘Bode!’ ‘Bode!’ Everybody thought I was so cool because I knew all the girls, you know. My wife didn’t, though.”
Helm met Tammy in 1988. He’s uncharacteristically restrained when it comes to the account of his marriage, the birth of his children, and his eventual divorce. “I don’t want to get into that story,” he says. The crux of it is this: his wife lied to him about several things, not the least of which was that she had a terminal disease and wanted to have children before she passed away.
“And I’m thinking, Hey, I want to have kids. I always wanted to adopt kids, kind of give back,” Helm says. “I never really wanted to get married.” They had twin boys, Adam and Brandon, born prematurely at just over 2 pounds. The infants spent almost five months in ICU. Helm marvels at it today. “They’re 6-foot-4 now,” he says. “They’re, like, the biggest in their class.” After the twins’ birth, a five-year divorce battle began that left Helm drained and defeated. That’s when, on that fateful day in 1996, he walked into work and fired every employee he had, shutting down all his business operations. “I was an idiot for doing that,” he says now. “I really kind of regret it, financially, but I was ready for a change, too.”
Fast forward 12 years to August 2008. It has been almost three weeks since Helm returned from a gig in LA, where he photographed a campaign for LOKA, a startup label run by two willowy South American women whom Helm met at a bar. His studio, in the basement of Southside on Lamar, is abuzz with activity for an editorial shoot for a D Magazine fashion feature. Racks of designer clothes crowd the room where a model is having her makeup done to resemble a recent Dior runway look. Music blares. Helm pulls up shots from some of his recent assignments. He has had a busy summer, with work taking him to Shanghai, Paris, Chicago, and California. When he’s not shooting, he’s digitally tweaking his images. He often sleeps from 5 pm to midnight, then works through the night refining his shots. He spent four years honing his PhotoShop technique, another step in his quest to coax perfection from every image he captures. Helm dedicates each year to a particular discipline related to his work. One year it was lighting. Another, directing.
Currently, Helm seems to be working mostly on designing his workspace, which doubles as his second home. He has ensconced himself in what he calls the Treehouse, a rooftop concrete cube that served as maids’ quarters when Sears owned the Southside property. He does his post-production computer work here. The scent of Super Hit incense lingers in the air (“It makes me feel young,” he says), and it’s clear that a child of the ’60s has done the decorating. There’s a mushroom-shaped pillow lying on a futon, and different styles of twinkle lights drape the walls. A bottle of Captain Morgan rum stands at the ready. Sunlight floods through huge windows that look out over downtown Dallas.
His 27-year-old girlfriend, Andrea, a former model, sits on the futon, legs crossed. She and Helm met at a photo shoot and have been together for almost four years. Despite their age difference, they seem well suited for one another—her quiet pragmatism a balance to his boundless energy. (In fact, she is older than many previous girlfriends.) For instance, she’s not as taken as Helm is with the charms of the Treehouse, or the possibility of living there full-time (Helm jokes that this is his dream).
Back in the studio, Helm is shooting the second look of the day. He gives instructions to the young model on posture, poses, and facial expressions, punctuating each direction with “baby.” Stylists and hair and makeup people hover around the set, bobbing their heads to the music. Helm’s son Brandon, a sometime photo assistant, wanders from room to room, taking a break from the rooftop pool.
Six months after that shoot, Helm has a new focus. After joking that his concentration for 2009 was to be “vacation,” he has taken to writing computer applications. He’s teaching himself a programming language called Objective-C, which he hopes will enable him to open a retouch lab. “I can see that there’s a business there,” he says. “It’s a whole different art within itself.”
His boys graduate from Highland Park High School this spring. Soon, they’ll be headed off to college. By then, Helm will be 47 years old (a fact he is loathe to admit). At one point in his life, the occasion might have caused Helm to do something crazy, shuffle the deck, maybe light out for New York or LA, someplace closer to the fashion industry. But he won’t. Andrea is out of school, and the twins’ post-grad plans are, for now, to remain in state. The sisters still live in Arkansas, about a five-hour drive away. He has the Treehouse and plenty of work. And he’s still got the Bode aura.
“That’s just Bode,” his mother Mona says. “I don’t think he’ll ever outgrow that.”