Photography is often like literature. It makes allusions, it plays with character, it creates setting. Maybe the photograph documents an event, its beginning, middle, or end. Or maybe it has a message. It wants to show injustice, it wants to say no or ask why. But it’s rarely that easy and never that straightforward.
Photographer Maxine Helfman creates stories, many of which are rooted in the American South and its history of racial division. But woven into these narratives is a kind of memoir: the distress of childhood, divorce and isolation, the emotional impact of the sixties and the freedom struggles of that era, and the vulnerability, at every present moment, of the personal.
In this interview for LensCulture, Helfman speaks about her indirect path to photography and the importance of creative instinct, discomfort, and discovery in her stories.
Collier Brown: Before we get into the images, maybe you could tell us a little about yourself—where you grew up and what got you into photography.
Maxine Helfman: I grew up in the 60s in Miami. My parents divorced when I was 7. Divorce at that time was not civil or well accepted in society, so I was a bit of an outcast. I pretty much drifted with no direction until I discovered my creativity in my mid-thirties. Through a job, I talked my way into store display, then into styling props and sets for photo shoots. I eventually taught myself to shoot, which led to commercial still life. I branched out into fashion and portraiture. In 2012, I decided to begin making personal work.
CB: Many of your images capture a sense of estrangement—the feeling of being ostracized, of being left out or left behind. Do you feel like some of that is connected to those childhood experiences?
MH: My images are a collection of personal experiences. I relate to outsiders and to the connection between isolation and vulnerability. At the core of the images is empathy. When we isolate one individual and look into her eyes, we can step into her shoes more easily. Once the dynamic changes to they, the personal element is lost, and we start to other people. We see that in our current political climate.
CB: Your photographs suggest isolation on a larger scale too. Racial diversity and adversity, especially, feature powerfully in your work. How did that come to be a focal point for you?
MH: I grew up during the civil rights movement. My mother embraced those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. I have a deep respect for the courage it took them to fight for their rights. When I look at images from that time, I am still deeply disturbed by the brutality with which peaceful, hard-working people were treated. Sadly, we are watching history repeat itself. Through my work, I connect current events with the past to create conversation. Art allows us that voice.
CB: Creating conversation—yes, that’s a great way to put it. You often create conversation where conversation is missing, particularly where it’s missing historically. Many photographers compose “photo essays” when dealing with this issue. But you create “short stories,” as the title of one of your recent series suggests. Do you distinguish between these two ideas?
MH: When we read a novel, we create the visuals. I do the opposite. I create the visuals, and the viewer decides what the story is. When I think of the term “photo essay,” I think of something based more in fact and documentation. I use “short stories” as they are based more on emotion, maybe the way you would think of a song. I don’t really think about what I’m going to do or how I plan to tell the story beyond casting, wardrobe and location. In reality, it is the viewer that tells the story based on her interpretation.
CB: You also derive inspiration from paintings. Are there particular painters you return to?
MH: Certain painters inspire me: Michaël Borremans, Radu Belcin, Lucian Freud, and Egon Schiele to name a few. I’m attracted to the awkwardness they depict. I like the challenge of transcending traditional photography to achieve some of the more unnatural qualities, in terms of gesture and expression, that painters have the freedom to explore.
CB: That really speaks to the atmosphere you create in your short stories. It’s that “unnatural” element that comes through so clearly. The neighborhoods, the streets, the rooms, even individual people often express, outwardly, some inner sense of alienation.
MH: That is what I am attracted to. I like things that feel uncomfortable, the moments and feelings that we all try to avoid looking at: vulnerability, loneliness, fear, melancholy. That’s where I find beauty, and I don’t want to disguise it by making the image feel comfortable. I also prefer images to be timeless, without distinct locations or props. I think it keeps the story uncluttered.
CB: It sounds like you trust your intuition a great deal when it comes to making photographs. Any final thoughts on that balance between instinct and technique?
MH: I discovered my talent late and have a deep sense of gratitude to have found this passion. When you absorb yourself deeply in something, it becomes your way of life; it becomes essential. Being self-taught, mine is a process of instinct rather than intellect. I totally let go. I don’t try to control the outcome. It is truly about the discovery.