Dark Rooms and Pool Halls

November 9, 2015
Helaine Garren (SAIC 1970–72), photos from Bensinger's pool hall, 1970–72

by Ana Sekler (MA 2016)

The cover of the November 2015 issue of Billiards Digest bears the image of a tall, lean figure resting his left hand on the lacer wood of a pool table. The dim light of subterranean Bensinger’s pool hall catches his mass of curly hair, which casts a shadow across his concentrated expression. A cigarette hangs languidly from a half-smile. This fleeting moment was caught in the 1970s on the camera of then-SAIC student Helaine Garren (SAIC 1970–72).
Helaine Garren (SAIC 1970–72), Leaning Man, 1970–72, November 2015 cover of Billiards Digest

While attending the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), Garren frequented Bensinger’s pool hall, documenting its unique underground culture. Decades later, her series of photographs has resurfaced, and her iconic photographs are finding their place in the world.

Garren, a Chicago native, took Saturday classes at SAIC as a child. Although she remembered the classes fondly, she chose to attend college in Ohio and promptly flunked out. “It was my bad girl period,” she explains.

Garren got a job at Northwestern University and spent her lunch breaks practicing pool with her friend Bonnie. At night, the two young women hustled in seedy bars. “Nobody at that time expected a woman to be any good at pool, and [Bonnie] was fantastic. I remember one night…I was sitting on the bowling machine, shoving money into my pockets as fast as I could. No one could beat her,” says Garren.

It was in a bar in Chicago that she met Alan Leder (MFA 1972), who bought her her first camera, showed her how to work in the darkroom, and convinced her to take a photography course at SAIC. Her first instructor, Charles Swedlund, got her hooked, and she enrolled as a full-time student.

Helaine Garren (SAIC 1970–72), photos from Bensinger's pool hall, 1970–72

When Hugh Edwards gave an assignment to shoot a series of photographs, Garren says she knew Bensinger’s would be perfect. “The only lighting was these beautiful triangular lights over the tables, so it, that created this gorgeous side lighting; and with the shady characters, it was the perfect place to do a series of photographs,” she says.

Bensinger’s, which was located first in the Loop and then at Clark and Diversey, was nationally famous for billiards and inspired the pool hall Bennington’s from the 1961 movie The Hustler. “All of the greats were there—including Minnesota Fats—anybody with any kind of chops in the pool world wound up at Bensinger’s at some point,” says Garren.

Photographing the regulars at Bensinger’s was at first a daunting task for the young photographer, but she was there so frequently that she began to blend in with the background. “I would just sit down at the table, take these guys’ photographs, and it didn’t bother them in the slightest. They just wanted to play pool,” Garren recalls.

Helaine Garren on her wedding day in 1971

Garren took two classes with Edwards, who was also Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago museum. After completing and turning in her Bensinger’s series to Edwards, she received what she considers to be one of the greatest honors of her life. “When he got through looking through the photographs, he pointed to one of the piles and said, ‘I want to buy these.’…I was so honored, I couldn’t believe it.”

While a student at SAIC, she met and fell in love at first sight with fellow student Eddie Gordon (MFA 1972), whom she later married and moved away with. After ending her studies at SAIC, life became busy, and she soon had a family to support. The Bensinger’s photos were packed away in the back of her closet until about seven years ago when a movie critic and friend in Portland asked to see them.

Her friend was blown away by the images and insisted that Garren present them to local galleries. Chris Bennett, of the Newspace Center for Photography in Portland, exhibited Garren’s photographs in 2004. In August 2015, he helped Garren start a Kickstarter campaign to get funding for a book of the photographs. The campaign fell $10,000 short of its $25,000 goal, but Garren hasn’t given up hope that the book will be published. She has recently teamed up with Catherine Adami, whose father, was one of the luminaries at Bensinger’s: Freddy “the Beard” Bentivegna.

Garren hasn’t picked up a camera in 30 years, but her pool hall series is a legacy she is proud of.

Helaine Garren (SAIC 1970–72), photos from Bensinger's pool hall, 1970–72

“It’s almost like I am looking at someone else’s photographs. I took them so long ago so I don’t feel guilty about saying that some of them are pretty damn good. They mean a lot to me because it was a crossroads of two important parts of my life—SAIC and pool....It is my footprint on the earth,” says Garren. Bensinger’s and that particular era of pool culture may be gone forever, but Garren’s photographs offer an intimacy that beckons further exploration into the world that existed around the billiard tables.