Moth 2014. From the series Summertime. © MAXINE HELFMAN

It’s not enough for Maxine Helfman just to take pictures. “I also want to see the world, to see how people live,” says the 65-year-old Fort Lauderdale photographer, who recently visited India and Morocco. “Those two countries have done it for me more than anywhere. India is both chaotic and inspiring. Every second of every hour of every day, you look around and shake your head and can’t believe what you see.”

Whether traveling the world or working in her studio, when Helfman has a camera at her eye she doesn’t always have a concrete plan in mind, unless one of her commercial clients does. When it comes to her personal work, “even if I have an idea of what I’m looking for, often I realize I can’t do it that way and now I’m winging it. It’s more exciting to discover whatever’s going to happen.”

But one thing Helfman does plan on is making photographs that challenge our beliefs about race, class, gender and culture. Inspired by art history and its relationship to contemporary social issues, her portraits and “manufactured realities” reinterpret the past in order to shed new light on the present.

“I love historical references, and how history relates to today and today relates to history,” says Helfman. “And I want to make images that have beauty to them; then people are more likely to get drawn in. Not that I’m going to change people’s minds, but hopefully my photographs will make them think.”

Look at Helfman’s Historical Correction series (2012), and you may wonder why she chose black models. They’re wearing the elaborate collars and headpieces that only the white, Flemish noble elite of the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries were entitled to, in portraits similar to those by Frans Hals, Jan Wildens and other painters of the time. Such attire clearly denoted an elevated status, further heightened by an arrogant-seeming posture that the stiff and confining clothing style imposed upon wearers. Helfman’s models have the same aloof expressions, their faces emerging from total darkness, as if no longer hidden from view.

“I wanted my portraits to feel like they were a missing archive of art history, as if these people existed and no one knew it until now,” says Helfman, who, with hair and make-up artist Albert Tidwell, made many of the collars, cuffs and headpieces ”” some from placemats, handkerchiefs and a doll’s dress. Her inclusion of black subjects in images where, historically, they didn’t belong, leads the viewer to ask, “What would the world be like with racial equality?”

Helfman’s work can sometimes rile people up ”” and that’s just what she wants. “I used to think I had to be a photojournalist or documentary photographer to make a statement. But I realized how desensitized we are to those images because we see them all the time: here’s another car bombing, another dead body. OK, there’s got to be another way to make a point, to make people think about social issues in a different way.”

Read More in Photographer’s Forum :: Fall 2018 / Vol. 40 / No. 4