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Maxine Helfman


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.

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