New York Photo Review
NYPR Archives - 2010

Helmar Lerski
(1871-1956): Transformation Through Light
R. Wayne Parsons
American Engineer by Helmar Lerski. Source:
Helmar Lerski, "American Engineer" 1913

Helmar Lerski is another arts figure (there are many) history has not been kind to. Virtually unknown today, he nevertheless deserves a place in the history of photography, especially portraiture, by virtue of his innovative techniques and large-scale projects.

Lerski came to the US from Switzerland for an acting career. At the relatively late age of forty (1911) he took up photography. His versatile career included time spent teaching photography at the university level, stints as a movie cameraman (including a credit on Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”), work as a documentary film maker, and major efforts as a portraitist. Most of his career in the 1930s and ‘40s was spent in Palestine undertaking broad, ambitious photographic projects very similar in scope to August Sander’s “Man in the Twentieth Century”. The titles of these series, (“Everyday Faces”, “Jewish Faces” “Arabic Faces”, “Human Hands”) reveal his interests.

Lerski wrote that “in every human being there is everything; the question is only what the light falls on.” In Lerski’s case these are more than vague, new-ageish words, as they are an accurate pointer to his working methods in portraiture. Lerski developed an approach to lighting that used various mirrors to focus light on the face of his subject; I have no idea if anyone alive today understands his techniques well enough to replicate them. The result was a much more flexible form of lighting than the standard studio practice of his day or ours. Light falls on the face from multiple directions. He could place highlights and shadows wherever he wanted them, thus adding further dimensions to the sculptural aspects of the human face. This sounds like a recipe for a visual mess if not done well, but Lerski mastered his method to the point that we don’t notice the technique and instead concentrate on the expressive qualities of the resulting portraits.

 by unidentified photographer.
Helmar Lerski, “Araber, No. 375” circa 1930’s

They are what we today would term “dramatic”. Typically the face occupies the full frame. His subjects do not smile. They more often look into space, not the camera. But it is the variations of light intensity on the surface of a face that make a portrait so compelling. Testimony to the effectiveness of his style is a series of almost 200 images of the same man, each lit differently and each a different interpretation of this subject whose identity is a mystery today. Eighteen of these photographs are included in this exhibition, and you will relish studying them. We also see a generous number of portraits of Jews, Arabs, various “everyday” personalities, as well as a selection of photographs of hands, which are overshadowed by the portraits.

If you were ever compelled to turn a camera towards a living person, or even if you just enjoy exploring the fascinating variations of the human face, this exhibition is a must, a welcome change of pace from the dead-pan portraiture with flat lighting so popular in art photography today. Altogether eighty-eight images are displayed, so don’t go when you are in a rush.

Helmar Lerski
(1871-1956): Transformation Through Light

Ubu Gallery
416 E 59th St.
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212 753 4444

Monday, April 19 to
Friday, July 30, 2010
Hours: Tue-Sat, 11 to 6