Every month an exclusive edition run of a photograph by an artist featured in Don't Take Pictures magazine is made available for sale. Each image is printed by the artist, signed, numbered, and priced below $200.
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We are pleased to release May's print, Butterfly from Maxine Helfman. Read more about Helfman's work below.
Purchase this print and from our print sale page.
Maxine Helfman: Summertime
Instinctively, almost magnetically, we are drawn to beauty, or at least our perception of it—in people, animals, places, objects, design, and even in ideas. And so it is with Maxine Helfman’s Summertime, a series of photographs that, at first glance, seems all about that subjective and elusive concept. Admittedly, the sheer beauty of these seductively rich color images provides the initial attraction, yet this is not what ultimately maintains the viewer’s attention.
These mysterious images read like narratives and offer so much more than first meets the eye. To look closely and fully appreciate their ambiguous and multi-layered richness takes time. But it is precisely those narrative layers, wide open to interpretation, that keep us looking—inviting us to stay and search—to unearth yet one more clue that might help unravel these intricately woven stories. This is what gives them their strength and their staying power.
One of Helfman’s more intriguing images, entitled “Butterfly,” presents a woman in tonal shades of deep blue. Even her dewy black skin appears cast in blue. She is sitting sideways, but her head is turned to the camera as she stares at us from behind what looks to be a transparent gauzy scrim. In fact, Helfman used a simple screen, the kind used for screen doors, which seems to work both as a light diffuser and as a subtle nod to that staple of hot, humid Southern summers. More importantly, perhaps, the screen’s visible tactility suggests a veil of sorts—for protection or for camouflage—the reasons unclear. Plum-colored lips, slightly parted, this unsmiling woman in the image looking back at us appears both questioning and all-knowing. Removed from any context, she sits proudly against a dark background, softly lit from the back and side. She wears a blue and white polka-dot dress, her face framed by its wide white collar. The dress could be from the early 20th century or of a more recent vintage. We see her only from the waist up, but both the dress and she appear timeless. Most striking is the large delft-blue, black-edged butterfly that seems to float incongruously in mid-air, just concealing her left eye. Is this gossamer-winged creature simply a mysterious counterpart to this equally striking and mysterious woman, or is it also a statement about seeing, being seen, or yet another device which allows this woman to remain partially hidden from the gaze of others? The fragile and ephemeral butterfly offers a fine contrast with the strength that this woman projects in her unflinching gaze. The butterfly, of course, symbolizes transformation, but it is also the ancient symbol of rebirth—the ultimate promise of resurrection.
This interpretation circles back to Helfman’s series title, Summertime. DuBose Heyward’s lyrics, most often connected to the opera, Porgy and Bess, nearly always come to mind when hearing the word. Both the lyrics and Gershwin’s composition were inspired by early African American spirituals. These particular lyrics seem especially meaningful, given the butterfly and its metaphorical offering of hope, transformation, and resurrection: . . . One of these mornings you’re gonna rise up singing . . . And you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky . . .
Influenced by the South of another place in time, Helfman says her initial goal was to “visually describe summertime in the South, to capture its beauty, emotion, and mystery.” Although she grew up in Miami and now lives in Texas, Helfman has no real connection to the South she envisions, other than the heavy influence of music, books, and interest in its own multi-layered, conflicted history. Helfman states that she “works from the gut and never has a deep seated plan;” rather, she simply starts with an idea and allows process to take over and grow, organically. “The meaning itself grows afterwards.”
Helfman gives away little as to her own meaning with these images, except to say that she has always been interested in the South and a revisionist history as it concerns race. Rather than a lengthy explanation as to her meaning, she prefers viewers to connect through their own experiences and ways of seeing. This allows the images to remain dynamic and fluid.
In “Sisters,” a compositionally stunning image, two young women, facing forward, lean in towards one another, heads touching, arms intertwined. Their shapes and clothing echo the perfect symmetry and rainbow hues of yet another iridescent-winged creature—whether real or invented is unclear—suspended over their lightly touching hands. Again, the ephemeral butterfly offers the multiple connotations of hope and renewal, fragility and impermanence.
Helfman partners her Summertime portraits with quietly rendered and equally rich still life imagery. Inhabiting the same color hues and tone as her portraits, they borrow from early traditional still life paintings. A surprising and odd juxtaposition, perhaps, but for Helfman, to show them together seems a natural process. Admittedly, Helfman likes to break the rules and construct images that she finds “interestingly jarring.” She prefers to make photographs that look like paintings—“to pose people in the way that painters paint people, not in the way that photographers photograph people.”
Certainly, showing the portraits and still life imagery side-by-side illuminates the painterly quality of Helfman’s work. Making that “interestingly jarring” pairing also brings a fresh and nuanced awareness to the portraits, allowing the viewer to experience them in a whole new way. The women, quietly placed in their unmarked surroundings, seem—at once—a notable presence, and yet so much a part of their environment that they become one with it. Placed behind vases of red geraniums or large-leafed plants, they begin to appear strangely like still life objects themselves. Questions emerge about the role of these women of color, both in these contemporary images, and historically.
Helfman divides her time between commercial photography and her widely exhibited fine art work. “Each feeds into the other,” she says, which keeps her work fresh. Although a self-taught photographer, Helfman’s background as a set designer and stylist also informs her work. Her images, consistently realized in-camera, do not rely on extensive post-production adjustments.
An accomplished and thoughtful body of work, Summertime poses questions and does not simply offer answers to what we already think we know. Helfman gives us the space to view this work on our own terms, to see anew, to ask our own questions, and to begin a dialogue.
This article first appeared in Issue 4.
Diana H. Bloomfield, a native North Carolinian, is a photographer, independent curator, and writer. She currently lives and works in Raleigh North Carolina.