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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Helmar Lerski

Born: Israel Schmuklerski 
Dates:  1871, 18 February - 1956, 29 November
Born:  France, Strasbourg
Died:  Switzerland, Zurich
Active:  US / Germany
Swiss photographer, filmmaker and actor. Started as a banker and then became an actor. He took up photography when he was 39 and his striking portrait style, using a harsh and at time unflattering light, was well respected. He was involved in special effects for the film industry working on masterpieces like Fritz Lang's Metropolis and he was cinematographer on over 40 films. At the Film und Foto (FiFo) exhibition in Stuttgart in 1929 his photographs were well represented with 15 showing. He saw the potential of using sophisticated lighting for portraits and his 1931 book Köpfe des Alltags took ordinary people and through the use of titles gave them roles - he was demonstrated that the viewers perception of a person could be radically influenced by the lighting and title.
In his "Metamorphosis through light" series he pushed this idea to the extreme by taking over 140 close-up portraits of a single person, Leo Uschatz, using as many as 16 mirrors and a number of filters. The result was a study in the variations of a single person through photography and a clear demonstration that the lens does not have to be objective. Attempts to publish "Metamorphosis through light" failed during his lifetime and it was only in 1982 that it was published.

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Portrait of Helmar Lerski 
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Supplemental information

Helmar Lerski is renowned for his singular approach to portraiture. Instead of attempting to reveal the unique characteristics of his subject. Lerski translated the physiogonomy of the face into a sculptural surface onto which he projected lights and shadows to dramatic effect. Of Jewish Polish descent, and Swiss citizenship, Lerski was born in Strasburg, then part of Germany, as Israel Schmuklerski. He grew up in Zurich, but moved to New York in 1893 at the age of twenty-two to work as an actor, changing his name in 1896. He spent several years with a German theatre company in Chicago and Milwaukee, where he met his wife, a photographer. In 1911, Lerski began to experiment with photography by adapting dramatic stage lighting techniques to portrait photographs of fellow actors. In 1912, Lerski was encouraged to pursue a career in photography by Rudolph Duhrkoop, who had come to St. Louis to demonstrate his photographic techniques.
In 1915, after more than twenty years in America, Lerski moved to Berlin, and after showing his portraits, was asked to become a cameraman at Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA studios), where he worked on major films, including Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, in 1926. In 1931 Lerski published Kopfe des Alltags (Everyday Faces), a series of portraits of anonymous working-class figures. Extreme close-ups emphasized the archetypal characteristics of his sitters rather than their individuality.
With fascism on the rise, Lerski immigrated to Palestine and worked as a director and cameraman for documentary films. In 1937 he created his masterpiece, Transformation Through Light, on a rooftop terrace in Tel Aviv, in which he projected 175 different images of a single model, altered using multiple mirrors to direct intense sunlight towards his face at various angles and intensities. In 1948 he returned to Zurich, where he spent the rest of his life. - Christina Hunter. Portraits of an Age, Neue Galerie, New York, 2005
Ebner, Florian. Metamorphosen des Gesichts: die Verwandlungen durch Licht von Helmar Lerski. Gottingen, 2002.
Eskildsen, Ute, ed. Mi>Helmar Lerski: Verwandlungen durcht Licht. Freren, 1983.
[Courtesy of Muse XX, October 2007] 

Internet biographies

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Getty Research, Los Angeles, USA has an ULAN (Union List of Artists Names Online) entry for this photographer. This is useful for checking names and they frequently provide a brief biography. Go to website
Grove Art Online ( has a biography of this artist. 
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Internet resources

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Helmar Lerski ... 

Printed biographies

The following books are useful starting points to obtain brief biographies but they are not substitutes for the monographs on individual photographers.

• Auer, Michele & Michel 1985 Encyclopedie Internationale Des Photographes de 1839 a Nos Jours / Photographers Encylopaedia International 1839 to the present (Hermance, Editions Camera Obscura) 2 volumes [A classic reference work for biographical information on photographers.] 
• Beaton, Cecil & Buckland, Gail 1975 The Magic Eye: The Genius of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day (Boston and Toronto: Little, Brown & Company) p.161 [Useful short biographies with personal asides and one or more example images.] 
• Capa, Cornell (ed.) 1984 The International Center of Photography: Encyclopedia of Photography (New York, Crown Publishers, Inc. - A Pound Press Book) p.300-301 
• Fernandez, Horacio (ed.) 2000 Fotografía Pública: Photography in Print 1919-1939 (Aldeasa) p.156 [This Spanish exhibition catalogue is one of the best sources for illustrations of photomontage and book design for the period between the two World Wars.] 
• Lenman, Robin (ed.) 2005 The Oxford Companion to the Photograph (Oxford: Oxford University Press)  [Includes a short biography on Helmar Lerski.] 

Useful printed stuff

If there is an analysis of a single photograph or a useful self portrait I will highlight it here.

• Gruber, Renate and L. Fritz Gruber 1982 The Imaginary Photo Museum (New York: Harmony Books) p.253 
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