Maxine
Helfman

TBC's Hannah Tishkoff sat down with Maxine Helfman to discuss her creative influences, her politics, and her hometown of Miami. 
Hannah: How and when did you begin your career as an artist?

Maxine:
I started everything late because I never took art classes. I wasn't even exposed to it growing up in Miami. Like, if you went on a field trip, it was to the zoo. There were no museums here. If there were, it was dedicated to, like, alligators! It was for tourists,  which is funny now since Miami is considered an art city because of Art Basel Miami. But it was a desert back then, so I was never exposed to any of that. 

Somehow I found my way into store display, which led to styling. I worked as a stylist for years and then taught myself to shoot and started shooting at 47. I shot commercially for years and I had a studio in Dallas. Then I decided to come back home to Florida, and that kind of coordinated with me actually committing to making the work that I am doing now.
Did returning to Florida have something to do with your decision to dedicate yourself to your art practice?

It started in 2012 exactly. I don't mean this in a negative way to the commercial world because I loved it; it was good to me and
I did a lot of great stuff, but I just thought, “I don't want to wake up five years from now, and all I have to show for myself is this commercial work.” So I started doing these personal projects that were not in any way commercial. In fact, the first project I started then was the project I have called “Historical Correction.”
 How did that project start?

I had fallen in love with portraiture from working as a commercial photographer. When I had the idea for that project, it took me a while to find the wardrobe. Now, it's the reverse. I have no plan, no idea what I'm doing, and I just go by my gut and fumble around. Sometimes I shoot for a long time not even understanding what I'm doing, I just have the faith. Then somewhere down the road, it all kind of clicks. I'm really more into that process.
I am interested in that because, to me, your work does seem planned and is also engaging with complex political ideas. What are the steps that happen before you end up in the studio with your models and any props or costumes that you are using?

It mainly just comes from my gut and from trusting that something is going to come out where it's supposed to be. I keep thinking that the next time it should be easier, but it's never easier. My work is minimal, but yet the longer you look at it, it says a lot more than just what you're looking at. I'm not an argumentative person, but I obviously have opinions. I realize that arguments or debates are just not a great use of time; I don't think they really do anything. 

I started realizing you can make a statement; and if you do it in a quiet, beautiful way, you're inviting somebody to think about something or talk about it. How we deal with things oftentimes is everybody's yelling at each other, and nobody's even saying anything. They're just, you know, talking. I did a project about that, actually, called "White Noise." It's simply about that--we are screaming at each other, and it's just this endless argument based on nothing. I thought a more powerful way to have a dialogue is to do it through a beautiful introduction and a quiet, inviting way to enter especially dealing with things like race.

When I started "Historical Correction" in 2012, I really thought in two years, it would become irrelevant. I grew up in the civil rights era, so I have watched decade after decade of racism being reinvented, and it just shocks me. I think why I feel so strongly about the topic of race is that it is the most basic form of prejudice--like it is so outright. The color of your skin...that's it; that's what it's based on. And I just find that appalling. I find it appalling that we're still talking about it. What are we talking about? We're not talking about it; we're not dealing with it. There's definitely other forms, but I think this is just the most basic. I try not to listen to much news just because it's kind of crazy. I watch documentaries. I try to get information about history and what is going on today. Somehow, in that process, eventually, something just clicks, and it's usually based on either absurdity or contradiction. 

Looking at history, like with the "Forefathers" series, we talk about these people...these great men...these people who founded the country, and it’s all about freedom, and yet they were all slave owners!? Nobody seems to talk about that fact. George Washington was one of the most brutal slave owners. Yet, he is held up as an example of freedom. I’m not trying to denounce anything he did that was good, but you also have to acknowledge the fact that he was a brutal slave owner
The "Forefather" series, in particular, stands out to me. Did you set out with a plan as you began photographing for that series, or did it become evident over time that the American founding fathers were what you were engaging with?

Beginning new work is a series of random acts that allows new projects to present themselves. Initiated by something I’ve heard, seen, a thought, history, or current events, I follow that thread and begin to connect the dots. In the case of "Forefathers," I went into the studio with a box of prints from previous shoots and personal archives and began to tear and reassemble the pieces. There was a copy of an etching I had of George Washington, and I began to cut out the face, stopping halfway and just pulling it back. Below was a portrait from my series "Historical Correction," an interpretation of Dutch royalty portraits with African American models. This intersection led to a search of U.S. presidents that were slave owners and the contradiction that the men credited with establishing the foundation of this country based on freedom, liberty, and justice for all were owners of slaves.

The series represents the 12 U.S. presidents that were slave owners paired with portraits from my personal archives. The subtle transition of the two faces represents a part of history in infrequently acknowledged...exposing the contradiction.
The first image that led to the series began with a portrait of a woman beneath the image of George Washington, leading me to the story of Ona “Oney” Judge, who escaped her enslavement remaining a fugitive….never caught, never freed.
These powerful images bring up many questions that go into the foundation of our country and its impacts on American life today. What are you hoping people ask themselves when they view these images?

This series was created a decade ago, and as time goes by, it leads me to think about the concept of history itself. While we tend to think of history as a list of facts, the telling of it is fluid based on the teller, perspective, and the political climate, such as the one we currently find ourselves in. What is left in and what is excluded from generation to generation…and by whom? How do we determine accuracy? How is it recorded? What future will this lead to? Is this who we want to be? Ignoring our past will not resolve it. In choosing not to acknowledge parts of our history, such as slavery, we lose the lessons that can help shape the future.
Did you create this series to make a statement, start a conversation, or something else?

The work was made as an acknowledgment...a necessary step to begin to reconcile generations of injustice. My approach to my work is not as a historian but as someone connecting past and present with the intention of creating awareness to open a dialogue. In finding a new perspective, we might consider a new path forward or maybe just bring truth to “freedom, liberty, and justice for all.”
Portraiture has this history of voyeurism and exploitation, particularly in the dynamic between white artists and models of color. It seems like you are turning that on its head. I'm curious to hear what the relationship is that you have with your models and if they are involved in the process or influence the images in any way.

I’m always very, very fully open about what I'm doing. I really believe in using as much ethics as you possibly can. You never know when you do something today, and two years from now, the connotation is flipped. I always go into it with respect. I try to think it out from every angle so that it's from a sincere place. The main thing is it's always respectful. I have a rule that I always shoot portraiture from a lower angle. It's mostly because I feel like I should be looking up to the person from a perspective of respect.
How do the various identities that you hold come into play in your artwork? I noticed that one of your earlier series was about boyhood. It seems like there may be an interest in pursuing images and portraits of people who hold identities different from yours.

I think it's more of a topic than actually personally relating to it. I just notice things. Even the boyhood series, it's only because there was a period of time where I was shooting a lot of kids. It usually starts with me doing something accidentally and going, “Hey, that's pretty interesting.” Obviously, the images have my opinion. But I don't come from a personal point of view. I’m more of an observer, and then, once I've done it, I almost feel like a bystander.
You have to be able to live in that uncertainty as an artist. I'd imagine that the aspect of uncertainty would be important for an artist working in portraiture. You have to be able to navigate relationships with others, and there will always be dynamics between people that you can't account for or control.

When I shoot portraiture, I don't have any idea what I'm doing. It's like dancing...it's like I follow you, you follow me...it's like whatever happens happens, and I'll figure it out later. That's why I never have any idea what is going to matter to me before starting. I might do six portrait sessions with someone, and then all of a sudden, something will click and it all makes sense and starts a new project.  It is such a backward process.
It seems that by accessing this creative part of yourself, you can...not necessarily see into the future, but be more attuned to what is happening. Your work seems to deal so much with history – reframing history or reorienting history into the present. Photography itself is a time-oriented medium. I am curious to know more about your relationship to both the study of history and to time.

The history thing is interesting because, even if I try to ignore it, it is just there; it’s what it is all based on. I'm not a student of history. I can tell you I've never been interested in history; never studied it. I can tell you that as you get older, you start connecting dots and seeing patterns. As you get older, your own personal history grows, so you understand it better. When you're in your 20s, you don't really have a lot of history to connect. I grew up during Vietnam. Like everybody my age, you're affected by it, and it's part of your history. I remember those images at the end of the war. Then you look at what happened in Afghanistan, and that just looks the exact same. You start seeing history repeat itself. 
What do you think motivates your art-making? Why do you make your art?

I can't not do it. Sometimes I say, “Okay, maybe I'll take a break, and maybe I'm done.” But I have to be doing something. It really helps me understand things better. It helps me figure things out. There's a quote by Joan Didion where she said she wrote to see what was on her mind. I have opinions. I have outlooks, and for me, it's the way to figure that all out.
ARTIST STATEMENT (Courtesy of the Artist)
I have always had a fascination with how the brain perceives an image. The way one viewer draws connections is not necessarily the same for another. Like fitting the pieces together of a complex puzzle, my work is about fostering connections and connecting the dots that reveal personal meaning in an image. It's a partnership between artist and the viewer as we tap into our individual observations and intuition. Through this method of making connections, I found my process, allowing the work to reveal in its own time. William Kentridge refers to this process as "following the impulse." I am interested in how these "dots" are like periods of history, current events, or contradictions in our world. And how history repeats itself whether for the good of mankind or the bad. As in historical art, the human figure has consistently served as a surrogate for the human condition. My portraits aim at addressing these issues that reappear again and again such as race and gender inequality or self-identification and the lack of inclusion. I tend to draw from historical art forms like the portraiture of the 17th-century Dutch painters and the Japanese traditions of Geisha portraits from the Edo period. My art beckons a reconsideration of the past using the medium of photography, and the genre of the figure, as a symbol of truth and honor that debunks the stereotypes and myths that have divided humanity. Beneath these portraits are layers of complexity. Fusing the past and the present allows me to reconcile with issues I find troubling.