It is not uncommon to hear artists claim that they don’t care what people think of their work. Of course, it seldom rings true, but it’s an understandable conceit—to share one’s work is to leave oneself dizzyingly vulnerable, and self-preservation is a defining human trait. But when veteran photographer Maxine Helfman says she doesn’t care whether people like her work, I believe her. After all, your average commercial fashion photographer doesn’t turn up on CNN.com because of a racially charged photo series.
“I’m not a documentary photographer or a photojournalist, but every message has many messengers, and I realized that, in my way, I can still get a message out,” Helfman says. She followed that photo series, called Historical Correction, with Fabrication, a 2016 project that posits pointed questions about gender in its portraits of little boys clothed in dresses.
“She is not afraid to try new things,” says Leon Banowetz, president and executive creative director of Dallas-based branding and design firm Banowetz + Company. He has been working with “Max” for fifteen years. “Many people get complacent, but Max is always evolving.”
I had flown into Fort Lauderdale that morning, and Helfman and I are having breakfast steps from the beach. It’s only ten in the morning, but the sun is already making its intentions known. This, I will come to understand, is the Maxine Helfman default setting.
Helfman grew up twenty minutes from where we are now. Born in Michigan, she moved to Miami with her family when she was seven years old, and her parents divorced soon after. Her mother was a secretary, and with three young girls, money was tight.
“It sounds ridiculous now, but I had friends who weren’t allowed to hang out with me because my mother was divorced,” she says. “So you start getting isolated, and then economics isolate you further.”
Lacking any real direction, Helfman drifted aimlessly through her teens, high school rolling into low-wage jobs as smoothly as the waves breaking in front of us. She brushes her twenties away with a wave of the hand before pinpointing the moment that led her towards a future that, until then, she had only sensed was possible.
“I used to walk past the Burdines department store, look at the window displays and think, ‘That would be a fun job,’” Helfman says. “Then I saw a help-wanted ad in the paper, and I talked my way in. It was the first creative thing I ever did.”
Helfman had finally found something that moved her. Despite being in her thirties, working with no experience in an environment defined by punishing hours and threadbare budgets, Helfman was quickly promoted. Still, it didn’t take her long to realize that there was no real future for her in retail display. By then, though, Helfman had run into a former coworker who was working as a stylist. Around the same time, a friend of hers got into amateur photography; intrigued, Helfman bought a camera of her own.
True to form, Helfman talked her way into a stylist position—even though she was still figuring out what exactly a stylist did. After two years styling interiors for a studio, Helfman struck out as a freelancer. The change brought with it a nomadic lifestyle; she remembers doing her taxes one year and realizing that she had spent 280 days on the road. Given that she was getting so much work in Dallas—and had long told herself that she would get out of Florida—she moved there in 1992. For the next twenty-three years, Dallas would be where she made her career, her marriage and her life.
By 2000, business was humming, but Helfman had grown bored with the niche that she found herself in. “I was doing a lot of big sets, and I really wanted to do smaller stuff—creative stuff, like jewelry and cosmetics. But I didn’t have any of that in my portfolio,” she says. “So when I started testing and couldn’t find photographers who really saw my vision, I just started doing it myself.”
It was at night, in her spare bedroom, that Helfman learned lighting techniques that she still uses today, gaining the confidence to swim against the current—again. Looking for new, smaller-scale styling work, she put together a book, figuring that it could also double as a way to get feedback about her photography. After all, no one would know that she had shot the pictures herself. When she bumped into a colleague who had become a creative director at Neiman Marcus, Helfman showed her the images. Impressed, the woman offered her work on several projects.
Helfman was eager and excited, but also wary of what it would mean to make this leap. Yes, her ability to pull double duty as the photographer and stylist was an advantage. She also had a wealth of experience working with creative directors and brands—she knew what they wanted and how to do it. On the other hand, she knew that industry photographers—even those she had worked with for years—would consider her persona non grata once word got around that she had forgotten her place. Helfman took on the Neiman Marcus projects hoping to keep her dual role as the photographer quiet in case it didn’t work out. They were daunting assignments, and being both photographer and stylist should have been a nightmare, but Helfman found the experience exhilarating. Still, once the Neiman projects were finished, the only work coming down the pipeline were styling gigs.
“So, I’m waiting for a call about a big stylist job, wondering if I will ever shoot again, when I get a call from Nieman saying, ‘We love this. We want you to do these next three projects.’ And then two hours later, I get a call to confirm that stylist project,” Helfman says with a chuckle. “If they had called a couple of hours later, ethically, I would have had to turn Nieman down.”
As she suspected, once word got around, photographers in the industry kept their distance from “the stylist who thinks she can shoot.” Relating the story to me as we wait for the check, Helfman shrugs. It was all was fine by her. She had worked for everything she ever got, and this would be no different.
Steadily, the volume of work built. She traded that extra bedroom for a small studio, and moonlighting turned into a career shooting commercial still lifes. But, as always, she began to yearn for something more—or at any rate, different. Helfman was eager to do something for herself. After hearing about the FotoFest International biennial in Houston, she created three new bodies of work to submit, in a single insane month. The first two curators she sat down with loved the work, but the last reviewer—after halfheartedly thumbing through—suggested that she try “a Facebook group or something.” Today, that same work is hanging in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It was an eye-opening experience.
“Commercially, if the client is happy, I am happy,” Helfman says. “But as far as personal work, lots of people don’t like things. But I don’t really care. I know I’m doing things for a reason.”
Two very big dogs greet me vociferously when I walk in the front door of Helfman’s home in Plantation, Florida. Like much of what’s in this tastefully eclectic home, the dogs recently made the trip to Florida from Texas. The modest space manages to be both spare and teeming with books, art and exotic taxidermy. Knowing Helfman, I can only guess what treasures she left behind.
“My whole career has been change. I really believe in embracing change, and I don’t mean ‘there’s a new camera out this week,’” she says.
We are talking about her work, but I sense that we are also talking about her life. Helfman has always grasped adversity with both hands and wrought something of it. After spending more than twenty years in Dallas and shepherding her partner of twenty-three years through a terminal illness, it’s not hard to imagine that she was ready for new challenges. Helfman recently started adapting her techniques so she can work with available light. Her goal was personal—a creative liberation of sorts—but the resulting work brought critical acclaim, which in turn brought new clients to her doorstep.
Jody Quon, photography director at New York magazine, is one of them. It’s an image from Helfman’s Summertime series that inspired Quon to reach out. “One of the things that sets her apart from other photographers is her stylist’s eye,” says Quon. “As a photographer with a background in styling, she has incredible control of the overall aesthetic of her photographs, and the styling always takes a back seat to the overall pulse of the image.”
An intriguing part of her new workflow is rooted in travel—in getting to places where she can see differently. Helfman has just come back from India, was recently in Cuba and Ethiopia, and is currently planning trips to Vietnam and Morocco. She’s traveled extensively in Namibia, simply because a photograph of the country captured her imagination.
“I would rather risk fucking something up than just doing the same thing over and over. I got rid of the studio, moved here, changed my whole style of working—all because I am ready to see what happens next. What that is, I don’t know yet, and I am comfortable with that,” Helfman says. I believe her. ca