A Blind Man’s Love: Jean Hélion

Imagine placing your coccyx keenly into the back of the fourth or fifth step of Paris’ Sacre-Coeur. Lean back and place your elbows back keenly three more steps… Stretch your legs, and take in one of the most glorious view of Paris.

In my mind I am in the center of the city. I am where I need to be. I am about to walk into my program for the day. But first I have to decide which stroke of energy will lead the way. I have dueling sounds running through my ears. On one side I have the possibility of engaging Vivaldi: Concerto for 4 Violins in B Minor. If I choose that as my companion. Then I must engage Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”. This music and this collection will allow me to amble through the streets with a ton of considerations. Every sprig, shard of light, gathering of souls, footprints of buildings will amount to a story of Paris; past present and future.

In the other ear, I have George Harrison’s “Ski-ing” from the Wonderwall soundtrack. The barrage of disturbing guitar riffs, might give me the energy to tear through the streets with a raging madness. I would marry that music with Doris Lessing’s “A Briefing for a Descent into Hell”. That madness could electrify my creativity.

So I sit with this dilemma: amble my way… or pierce the heart of the city? It was like taking two separate yarns on a loom to weave the whole fabric of Paris with my camera. I am armed and ready with the visual language that might help me make sense of my upcoming portrait.

As I descended what I refer to as the Brassai steps from Montmartre down to the Luxembourg Gardens (a very long stroll) I more than at any time felt that I was a Tolstoy pawn as was his Prince Andrei in “War and Peace”.

As I danced down the Brassai steps I realized that I was like Andrei admiring the “lofty sky” with Napoleon in my sights. As a young man, Paris/Napoleon were bigger than the life known to me. I was in awe of what was and what was to be.

Paris has always been a visual palace that spoke to my heart. It is possible that I came of age as a photographer in this city. The dozens of trips that brought me here always spoke to a greater picture as a photographer. There was a bit of Proust in my camera, but thousands of books came to life when I looked to see what I might see.

i arrived habitually late for my session with one of the last of a generation of abstract/surrealist artists. Jean Hélion lived on Rue de Michelet near Luxembourg Gardens. The transition from Montmartre to the “…Gardens” is a bit like “War and Peace”. Both offer a historical chaos in Paris’ history.

Entering this world of artists was a goal for me. I wanted to photograph as many people that represented a style an idea a concept an agenda a game and an adventure to somewhere. I was after the living fathers of art history and everyone that followed them young and old.

Keith Haring was in his 20s, Basquiat was in his 20s and the world was talking about these prodigies. I was to photograph them as well. I realized that history was my light force. I wanted to capture the future past before it was someone else's recorded moment. I wanted this to be my legacy, capturing art history. The streets of Paris were not my obsession. Photographing the artists was my obsession: Cesar, Marcel Jean, Helion, Dubuffet, Matta, Andre Masson was my art history. I wanted the moment when I walked into the studios of not just artists but art. I wanted to see the canvas. I wanted the art in my camera...I wanted my story. 

Sometimes my story was what I expected... and then there were days where I saw the dekoonings or Miros and other maestros as if we were all the same age...wow what a shake up it was sometimes when my hero was 90 or 100. So you can imagine that I was totally flummoxed but in love when Helion's daughter still 20 years my senior said, “you know my father doesn't see but just a little. Let me walk you over to him.

There he was, his nose almost touching the canvas. A little man in a suit, tieless and a white shirt, nipping and tucking art. He was touching  the canvas with a bit of blue and glasses as thick as a doorknob. I was so much in love with the moment, I was unaware of my camera  weighing me down. I am still the kid with impressions that matter more than realities. My mind was clouded in dreams, because this is the dream I wanted to be real from the beginning. I wanted to stand one to to one with art history.

I am awash in colors. An artist’ life stood before me. A single shard of light, a cane and life's end posed before my camera. He took my hand after his daughter walked me up to him...and we strolled the studio through his memory. He was my eyes into his creations. I am reminded that I am a kid in my own eyes. I am wide eyed and just living a moment. Paris, Napoleon and more were just outside the walls of the studio.

I think I ended up photographing thousands of artists in my career. I witnessed what it was like to  stand in front of a blank canvas and decide what is the first moment, what is it I wanted to say. This is what the earliest cave drawings might have been about. Herbert Bayer once told me something like that...and I just loved the concept.


Jean Hélion and I had a coffee and a chat. I awake from my dream. “Shall we make your photograph Mr Schulman? For me the conversation was as important as the image. They are so intricately intwined.

I snapped an image and another. I was thinking about the light sparring with his glasses. I was a mere 6-10 frames From completing one of the saddest 125th of a seconds in my career. I looked at a life disappearing before my eyes in the guise of this fantastic little man whose 80 some odd years I cherished and adored. Hélion made me realize why I was in this moment. I took him by his hand and walked him to the side of the bed facing the window with his cane by his side.

My camera delivered the moment, death. My camera saw Jean Hélion disappearing into the light and beyond. There was a spell that enveloped the room. It was a moment that mattered. Life was over for him and that had to be my image.

My camera experienced death, the end of a life. He was being transported into the light and disappearing for good, an artists’ life at the end. I went up to him and stroked his shoulders and told him I was done. He whisked a tear from his eyes maybe guessing what I was thinking. He whispered, “but that was so fast, I hope you got what you wanted”.

I left his studio enraptured by my afternoon. I strolled through the “Luxembourg Gardens without noticing a single sound. Thirty-Five years later the shot was the experience I discovered that day. I will never forget photographing death.