Flemish-style portraits question race, equality

Story highlights

Maxine Helfman's photo series places black people in historical Flemish-style portraits

Helfman said the images create a social "contradiction" and force viewers to think

Helfman stages the subjects of her photos to command respect and exude power

CNN  — 

Photographer Maxine Helfman didn’t foresee the current outcry around civil rights in America back in 2012, when she began shooting portraits in the style of the old Flemish master painters – using only black models.

Placing people of color within a portrait style that historically was the domain of the European elite is a political statement on inequality couched in a beautiful tableaux.

Helfman’s subjects in the “Historical Correction” series wear the same aloof expressions of 17th-century noblemen and women in portraits commissioned from artists like Frans Hals. Light plays across their faces, white collars and billowing black vestments in a manner familiar to followers of the Dutch and Flemish masters.

The difference is that their faces are varying shades of brown.

Helfman, 61, wanted to create historical documentation of a population that never was. The images subvert the obvious storyline – that social strata often break down along racial lines. Her photos are a “contradiction,” she said, to the stories of inequality that are being told in protests across the United States.