Fabrication from Maxine Helfman is a series
based on classical twentieth-century studio
portraiture that addresses issues of gender,
fashion, and society.
A photograph of a girl in trousers and a
denim jacket rarely invites comment, but
a photograph of a young boy in a dress is
often seen as provocative. The question of
why certain predominantly symbolic dress
codes are still enforced inspired the
Dallas, Texas-based photographer to stage boys
in girls’ attire.
In making these photographs in a familiar
portrait style, Helfman used a neutral
background and perspectives ranging from
waist up to three-quarter length poses.
The lighting and the depth of field sharply
accentuate the model and the dress, so that
we as viewers readily accept the images’
objectivity. The photographs show preadolescent
boys wearing dresses that look
like vintage wear from the 1950s to the
1970s. The title Fabrication draws attention
to the types of cloth used in making
each dress, with the fabric signifying the
occasion for which the dress is worn or who
would wear it. The more expensive organza,
silk, and chintz are for elegant situations,
for example, while more affordable cotton,
corduroy, and eyelet are for everyday.
Each of these penetrating images is a
vignette in a small drama communicated
through the expressions and gestures of
the children. The boys are not overjoyed
to be modeling dresses, but in the images
selected for the series we can read a variety
of expressions, ranging from mistrust to
confidence, worried to relaxed, inhibited
to pouty. Although we may not know what
the parents of these children look like, the
added factor of feminine clothing leads
the observer to consider which physical
attributes the boys have inherited from their
mothers, grandmothers, or aunts and not
just from fathers, grandfathers, or uncles.
In any case, dressing up in old clothes and
role-playing different characters can provide
a rich lesson in discerning one’s identity.
In an earlier series, Historical Correction, Helfman photographed dark-skinned
models in pseudo seventeenth-century
gowns and caps of elegant satin, pristine
laces, and elaborate ruffs. The photographs
puncture our collective memory of the
personages we most associate with this
type of clothing: historical paintings of
British and Dutch colonial merchants
and aristocrats, and not the enslaved
populations of the same time period.
By creating such anomalies, Helfman’s
photographs impel the viewer to stop and
wonder about traditional visual coding,
especially clothing, that defines gender or
heritage in our contemporary world.
Celina Lunsford, Artistic Director, Fotografie Forum Frankfurt, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
A self-taught late bloomer who spent years as a prop/set stylist and photo art director, Maxine Helfman decided the only way to truly realize her vision was to get behind the camera. She has since been shooting commercially for advertising and editorial clients, while pursuing personal projects. Her work has appeared in Px3, the International Photography Awards, FotoDC, Flash Forward Festival Boston, Photolucida’s Critical Mass competition, and the British Journal of Photography, PHOTOnews, and Photo District News (PDN). Her photographs are also in the permanent collections of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.