Bode Helm’s breaking point came in 1996. After 14 years in the photography business, he was making good money. He had his own photo studios and a couple dozen employees. But he’d also just settled a nasty divorce. And at 34 years old, with twin toddler sons, he was tired. Fed up. His job now had less to do with photography—the art he’d first taken interest in as a 12-year-old growing up in rural Arkansas—than it did with sales. He was wasting his time hawking $100 glamour portraits to wannabe models and their mothers in malls around Dallas. So he walked in to work one day and fired all his employees. Then he took two years off. No cameras. No employees. No stress.
After a long stretch of living in low-rent apartments in East Dallas and Mesquite and subsisting on Wendy’s drive-thru, Helm settled in Columbus Square in Uptown. With his savings exhausted, he went back to work. This time he turned his attention to the world of fashion photography. He employed the hard sell, dropped in uninvited to modeling agencies and model search firms, asking to photograph their girls.
He had no studio and little equipment so he shot the girls in empty parking garages at night. “They’re great, because they’re already lit,” Helm says. “I didn’t have to carry all these lights. I was, like, the garage hopper.”
He had to work quickly to avoid getting hassled by security. The constraints forced him to hone a rapid-fire shooting technique and helped define the organic approach that makes every Helm frame feel as though it can barely contain the model’s energy, as though the subject might soon start moving, like a painting hanging in Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Harwood Lee, a San Francisco designer and stylist, says, “He can make something out of nothing.”
Now, 13 years after nearly giving it all up, Bode Helm is regarded as the best fashion photographer in Dallas. He shoots for Vogue, German Vanity Fair, Erykah Badu, Cadillac, and, yes, D Magazine. Paul Levatino, owner of PL Presents, which oversees marketing and publicity for Badu, began using Helm five years ago. “I would say he’s the top for fashion and portraits in Dallas,” Levatino says. “I don’t use any other photographer.”
Brynn Haney Isom, owner of Dallas-based Brynn Creative and producer of The Book for Neiman Marcus, says there are about 50 photographers here producing high-caliber work. She recently tested Helm for The Book, and she says his creativity distinguishes him from the pack.
Nancy Campbell, who owns the Campbell Agency and has supplied talent to the Dallas fashion industry for 20 years, says Helm is as good as anyone working in the country. “He brings life to the picture,” she says. “And, of course, he is charming.”
It’s that charm, as much as his talent and resourcefulness, that comes through in a Helm photograph. On the set, Helm has a wide-eyed intensity, a singularity of purpose, a primal sensuality. You get the feeling at a Bode Helm shoot that something sexual is occurring between the camera and the model. That feeling has given Helm his reputation (both in the studio and in his personal life). Levatino calls it “the Bode aura.”
Helm was born on April 7, 1962, at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, to a one-armed bank robber father and a derelict mother. He was sent to St. Joseph’s Orphanage in North Little Rock, Arkansas, and, at 6, was adopted by two sisters, Mona and Leah Caradine, who took him to live on their parents’ farm outside Haskell, Arkansas. Mona’s first contact with Helm came when he was 3, as she was touring the orphanage with a group from work. “They took us in to the babies department, and there was Bode,” she says. “He was a very pretty little boy, but he was just as sweet as could be.” As soon as she left, she called her sister Leah about adopting him. Leah was skeptical, but that changed once she met him. “He won us over right at the beginning,” Leah says.
-Helm’s adoptive grandfather had a sorghum mill and a sawmill, and he farmed peanuts, sugarcane, and peas. “I remember shelling peas like crazy. I hated that,” Helm says. But life on the farm was far from dull. “We lived right next door to a state hospital, which was really weird. One time, a guy dressed like Peter Pan jumps the fence, and I’m like, ‘Hey, Peter Pan just jumped the fence.’ And they’re like, ‘Right.’ And sure enough, here comes this crazy man running toward us dressed like Peter Pan. Peas go everywhere. Mona would always give ’em bananas to keep ’em there until the guards got there.”
Helm tells his life story the same way he shoots: fast, off the cuff. He speaks in run-on sentences punctuated with “Here’s a weird story—” and “This is a funny story—.” It’s a journey with only a loose chronology as guidance.
On Sundays, Helm says he frequented The Cardinal, a cafe across the street from his mothers’ church, where he perfected his foosball game. (“I can whip some ass at foosball,” he says.) He also learned to play the guitar as a result of his moms’ love for gospel music—and the musicians. He affectionately refers to his moms as “roadies.” “They were all in love with Dewayne Allen and all these singers. They still are,” he says. “Still old maids. Still chasing.”
By the time he was 12, Helm decided he would either become a mechanic or a photographer. The former seemed more likely. In high school, he worked at a machine shop that built racecar motors. His access to engine parts and a healthy dose of testosterone led to a souped-up motor that he housed in a blue ’72 Camaro with a white hood scoop and racing stripes. “It was really illegal,” he says. “I had pop-up pistons. I got this racing cam. And then I built the thing, and it wouldn’t run on regular fuel. I had to go to the airport and, in a 5-gallon bucket, get airplane fuel because the octane had to be so high. Blue flames would shoot out. That’s where I got popular at school. Because I had the baddest-ass car.”
His first foray into photography didn’t go as well. On summer break before pursuing a marketing degree at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and after an afternoon spent drinking beer, he and a buddy decided to hit up the friend’s dad for a job at his photography business. Helm showed up for an interview in cutoff jeans, long hair, and a mustache. The receptionist advised him to return the next day in a suit, and not smelling of alcohol. He did and landed a job in sales. After a rough start, Helm hit his stride. “I went out and I rock and rolled. I blew it out,” he says. “I was the first person to run a $100 average out of each customer at a Wal-Mart off an 88-cent 8-by-10.”
He dropped out of school, despite his family’s protestations, and a year later he was recruited to a photo-marketing firm, which, according to Helm, offered him a majority share of the company to woo him. The son of a bank robber, Helm now found himself doing a lot of business with banks, shooting employees and offering customer incentives such as family portraits. “This is kind of weird: I didn’t know my dad was a bank robber, and here I am taking pictures at a bank,” he says. He only learned of his father’s criminal past later in life.
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.”