Resume of the photography life of Dr Nicholas Hellmuth

Nicholas began to learn photography at age 16 with a Leica IIIG borrowed from his father, architect George Hellmuth (founder of what is now HOK Architects). With this Leica Nicholas drove to Mexico with a high school classmate to study Spanish in Saltillo (near Monterrey). While in Saltillo Nicholas saw posters showing the 8th century Mayan temple pyramids of Palenque, with “jungle” behind them.

So Nicholas decided to head down south, by himself, as a backpacker, on chicken buses, in 1961. He finally got to Palenque, photographed what he found with the Leica, and returned to Saltillo. Then he and a classmate Lynn Bealke drove back to St Louis to finish high school.

The photos of Palenque were put into his high school thesis. Since not many high school students in the 1960’s went to explore Mayan ruins and write a paper on them, his thesis was awarded 1st prize (at St Louis Priory School). This was one of several reasons why Nicholas was accepted at Harvard (again, most students spend the summer on the beach, or at a country club, or with their family).

Once at Harvard Nicholas met Phil Levine, the owner of the Leica distributor at Harvard Square (1960’s). The owner had noticed the student’s interest so provided him with newer model Leica and allowed Nicholas to pay for it bit-by-bit, month-by-month.

Nicholas Hellmuth Resume
Nicholas returned to Mexico to do more photography in remote Mayan ruins. He even helped the Bonampak project team since they kindly accepted him to spend a week with the Bonampak mural project team at this really distant ruin in those years.

Nicholas eventually did a photo exhibit of his photographs of Puuc Maya architecture (Labna, Sayil, etc.) at Harvard, and a professor discretely pointed out how to improve his photography. So Nicholas went back to Mexico with a new style and new manner to do photography. Eventually the camera dealer in Harvard Square made a Hasselblad available: so now Nicholas had both a Hasselblad and eventually his third Leica! Nicholas took on several jobs in Cambridge and Boston to pay for these cameras.

Year after year he learned more about photography. He spent 12 months as a student intern at Tikal ruins, Peten, Guatemala, at age 19 (1965). He was in charge of doing all the measurement, surveying and drawings of the north and east side of the entire North Acropolis. So lots of photography. After 8 months at Tikal he had enough experience that the project asked him to take charge of a pyramid facing Temple II. Within two months Nicholas and his team of local Peten excavators discovered the royal tomb of either the son or brother of the King of Tikal (the father or older brother was Ruler A, buried under Temple I).

So a lot of photography inside the royal tomb for week after week. All this is available in his Harvard undergraduate thesis, in two volumes. He used a Rolliflex (supplied by the University of Pennsylvania team at Tikal) with medium format roll film plus his own Leica with 35mm film.

With more experience Nicholas then started his own archaeological project, to map the entire city of Yaxha. With the help of archaeologist Carlos Rudy Larios to start the project (circa 1970-1971) and then with the help of Guatemalan archaeologist Miguel Orrego they mapped the whole city. Plus other capable student son their team mapped Topoxte Island in Lake Yaxha. They also improved the map of Nakum about a 4 to 6 hike through the rain forests from Yaxha.

Lots of photography in all these projects.

Photography with Leica and Hasselblad of Mayan architecture in Mexico

Between the 1960’s and 1989 Nicholas had photographed so many Puuc, Chenes, and Rio Bec sites that together with Dr William Folan they requested an INAH permit to photograph the temple-palace of Santa Rosa Xtampak “inside out.” So these remarkable temple and palace structures are the best and more completely photographed structures in this part of Mexico.

Architect George Andrews, and Carnegie Institution of Washington archaeologists and other Mayanists had done nice photography of Santa Rosa Xtampak monumental architecture in previous years. But we doubt they used a sturdy tripod for every photograph. And none made the effort to bring in a portable electric generator to illuminate the inside corbel vaults or the interior stairway. Plus Nicholas was using Leica and Hasselblad quality, with all lenses Made in Germany. No archaeologist in those years had this kind of equipment on any project.

Plus Nicholas also used Metz portable flash units: an entire set of multiple “potato masher” size and shape flash units (the largest and most powerful portable flash in the world. These Made in Germany flash units are so well engineered and built that several decades later Nicholas is still using them in 2018 to photograph caves (for his long-term interest in Xibalba, caves of the Mayan underworld featured in the Maya saga of the Popol Vuh).

Photography of relief Maya carvings on stone stelae

Nicholas Hellmuth Resume
Several books use photos by FLAAR, including on their front covers. Here is a recent book by Michael Lind with a photo by Nicholas Hellmuth on the front cover.

Next, in 1992, Nicholas offered to photograph all the hieroglyphic inscriptions and scenes on the many stone stelae of Nim Li Punit, in Belize. FLAAR has experience with the several kinds of lighting equipment which are good for low-relief sculptures such as Late Classic Maya stone stelae. As a result the photographs of the Nim Li Punit stelae turned out to document lots of detail which helped epigraphers do more precise drawings of the scenes and the Mayan hieroglyphs.

In the mid-1990’s, a Japanese publisher hired Nicholas to photograph for a coffee table book on pre-Columbian Mesoamerican art and architecture. With the funds available for this photography this Nicholas had several Leicas, several Hasselblads, a 4x5” Linhof, and an 8x10” Linhof, plus he was also now using a Nikon (to buy a 15mm Leitz lens cost more than a Nikon camera and a Nikon 15mm lens together!). So it was less cost to buy an entire Nikon camera plus the Nikon 15mm lens than to purchase a single Leitz 15mm lens. This Nikon lens is still in use by Nicholas over three decades later.

To photography for this book, Dr Nicholas spent 18 months in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize: both at archaeological sites and in museums, including museums in small rural areas (that not many people had visited to do professional photography).

Then, with the success of all this photography, the Japanese museum that was the sponsor of this coffee-table book, arranged a grant from the Japanese Ministry of Education for Nicholas to come to Osaka for six months to teach the curators and staff of the museum how to scan the film of past generations. Since this was Nicholas’s first exposure to the new digital epoch, he was fortunate to simultaneously receive a grant from a private foundation in the USA of $100,000 to “go digital.” This grant was provided by people who knew Hellmuth’s decades of success with Leica 35mm and Hasselblad medium format film. They realized that if they provided funding for Nicholas to “go digital” he could jump into the digital era ahead of most other photographers (this was still the 1990’s).

This grant came while Nicholas was a professor at Brevard Community College. So he hired a team to teach him Adobe Photoshop and all the other digital aspects he needed to know.

Bit by bit he learned digital photography and became well enough known that within about 2 or 3 years in the digital world, Dicomed and Better Light realized that FLAAR would be a good beta tester for their new daring digital technology: a tri-linear scanner camera. This camera (still 1990’s…) could do a panorama out of 29,000 individual digital photos (each was a single pixel row, a vertical row; there was no Google-sponsored GigaPan camera until a decade later). The Better Light camera did only 29,000 individual photos-per-photo because Adobe Photoshop in these years could not handle more than 30,000 pixel rows!

In the following years Nicholas tested PhaseOne, Hasselblad, Kodak, and Leaf medium format cameras: PhaseOne and Leaf were the best; Kodak did not survive in medium format. The PhaseOne was better than the Hasselblad (we know because we tested them all). Leaf cameras also produce impressive results.

Today (2018), Nicholas and FLAAR use a Nikon D5 and a Canon EOS 1Dx Mark II. If you know cameras of these brands you realize these are the top-of-the-line models of each brand. Nicholas also has a Nikon D810 as a backup (the Nikon D850 has to come out in an improved edition before we would test that high-megapixel concept; if we wish to use 50, 60, or 80 megapixels, PhaseOne with Schneider or Rodenstock lenses would be the professional level). But since we are currently doing mostly macro photos of pollinating insects and telephoto photos of fast-flying birds, 35mm Nikon and Canon are more realistic than medium format.

Photos of Nicholas and the FLAAR photographers (Eduardo Sacayon, Sophia Monzon, Jaime Leonardo in past years and currently Erick Flores and Melanny Quiñonez) are being requested by authors of books on plants of Guatemala. For several books Dr Hellmuth was offered co-authorship since his experience with plants and the quantity of his photographs would be a significant part of the book.

During this decade FLAAR focuses on photographing pollinators, wild vanilla orchid vines deep in the forests and mountains, orioles, caciques, and oropendola birds which make tall pendant nest structures, rare tropical flowers, and underutilized edible plants (especially rare fruits that were a staple of the Maya a thousand years ago).

To read more about Nicholas as a photographer, his resume is also updated on a new page.


Most recently updated July 10, 2018

This page was first posted so long ago we don’t have the date. It was updated April 2011 (design was updated June 2008).