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Long Lost Photos of a Legendary Pool Hall

Bensinger’s Pool Hall in Chicago was a landmark. A new photobook celebrates its history and its shady characters

by Chris Bennett, co-founder of Nor’wester Books

When she was just a child, Helaine Garren’s parents sent her to the Art Institute of Chicago every Saturday, for art classes. When she was a child-no-more, Garren developed a love of pocket billiards.

“I spent many of my bad-girl years learning the game,” she says.

When she was a graduating high schooler, Garren sent herself to the Art Institute of Chicago, and soon thereafter, she chose photography as her major.

Making images was an opportunity to rekindle, in a new and nuanced way, her interest in billiards, pool, and the people that play. In 1970, Helaine Garren began to photograph at Bensinger’s Pool Hall — an old-time joint and a fixture of Chicago culture.

Bensinger’s Pool Hall was the inspiration for the movie The Hustler (1961) starring Paul Newman.

The pool hall had beautiful side lighting. As it fell on the host of characters — office-workers, serious players, blue-collar guys and pool-sharks alike — Garren saw it was an ideal setting for making pictures.

Photographing the smoke filled hall was Garren’s first college assignment. Her teacher was Hugh Edwards, the curator of the print department, and the man who gave Robert Frank his first major solo exhibition.

Afraid of getting in the way or spoiling games, she shot with a telephoto lens at first.

“I didn’t want to disrupt the concentration and the social dynamics at the tables,” says Garren.

That soon passed. Her commitment to the work and her regular attendance saw to it.

“I was there so often that I became a fixture,” she remembers. “I could sit right next to the tables, and no one seemed to notice me.”

Turning in the assignment to Edwards was a nerve-wracking experience. Garren had no idea what his response might be.

“He looked through the photographs carefully,” she says, “separating them into two piles. When he was done, he pointed to one pile and said, ‘I’d like to buy these.’ It was the proudest day of my life.”

Helaine Garren says this is the best photo she made at Bensinger’s Pool Hall.

When Helaine finished school, she moved to Portland, Oregon, and the negatives and prints ended up in a box in her closet for the next 30 years.

One day in 2002, while talking about a shared love of shooting pool with a friend, she dug out her old photographs and showed them to him.

“He was blown away,” she recalls. “He told me I needed to have an exhibition of the work, so I decided to take them around to a few galleries in Portland.”

That’s about when I, Chris Bennett, met Helaine.

These days, I am co-founder of Nor’wester Books, but back then my focus was on a community photography space. I had opened Newspace Center for Photography in Portland. As well as housing community darkrooms it also had a gallery for exhibiting work.

Helaine came in with her box of prints one day, and I was floored. In 2004, Newspace exhibited the Bensinger’s work in a two-person exhibition titled American Retro.

I lost touch with Helaine some time after. I continued making photographs, went to grad school, started a family, the usual stuff. A decade down the road, my friend Benny Wizansky and I decided to start publishing photobooks.

We looked at Helaine’s work again and we knew we had to track her down.

It has been over 45 years since Helaine shot this body of work and a wider audience is long overdue.

Cover for the photobook Bensinger’s

Benny and I, under the imprint Nor’wester Books want to publish this luscious, moody work. It has edge and we believe the world will be better for seeing it.

Bensinger’s will incorporate elements of history from the pool hall and the characters who played there. It will be 8x10 inches and have approximately 49 images.

The book will also include a short essay, written in 1986, by David Mamet about Bensinger’s, long after the pool hall closed its doors for good.

Pages of an early book dummy.

Pre-order a copy of the book

Nor’wester Books has launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the production of Bensinger’s the book. In addition to the book, we have postcards and prints of different sizes offered as incentives for your support.

Helaine Garren

Helaine was born in 1944 and grew up in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents wanted her to marry a nice Jewish boy and become a senator. “I remember my mother marveling that senators earned $22,500 a year.” Instead, she married an artist from Glasgow. He wore a black leather motorcycle jacket lined with his old kilt. She currently lives in Portland, Oregon.

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