Friday, August 13, 2010

Helmar Lerski

 Helmar Lerski, Yemenite Boy, 1933

Helmar Lerski (1871-1956) was born in Strasburg, then part of Germany, as Israel Schmuklerski. His parents were Jewish immigrants of Polish origin. In 1876 the family moved to Zurich, Switzerland, where they obtained Swiss citizenship. Lerski 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 first wife, a photographer. 

 Helmar Lerski, A Boy, 1930

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 Dührkoop, who had come to St. Louis to demonstrate his photographic techniques. In 1914/15 he teached German language and literature at the University of Texas in Austin. 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 as a cameraman and expert for special effects for many films. 

 Helmar Lerski, The Metalworker, 1930

Between 1925 and 1927 Lerski was Technical Director for Schüfftan-Photography at Deutsche Spiegeltechnik GmbH & Co. This process was refined and popularized by the German cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan while he was working with Lerski on Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis (1927). Lang wanted to insert the actors into shots of miniatures of skyscrapers and other buildings, so Schüfftan and Lerski used  specially made mirrors to create the illusion of actors interacting with huge, realistic-looking sets.

 Helmar Lerski, Transformations of Light (No.571), 1936

In 1931 Lerski published Köpfe des Alltags (Everyday Faces), a series of portraits of anonymous working-class figures. Extreme close-ups emphasized the archetypal characteristics of his models rather than their individuality. With fascism on the rise, Lerski immigrated to Palestine where he 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. Siegfried Kracauer wrote about this series in his Theory of Film (Oxford University Press, 1960, p. 162):

 Helmar Lerski, Transformations of Light (No.569), 1936

"His model, he [Lerski] told me in Paris, was a young man with a nondescript face who posed on the roof of a house. Lerski took over a hundred pictures of that face from a very short distance, each time subtly changing the light with the aid of screens. Big close-ups, these pictures detailed the texture of the skin so that cheeks and brows turned into a maze of inscrutable runes reminiscent of soil formations, as they appear from an airplane. The result was amazing. None of the photographs recalled the model; and all of them differed from each other. 

 Helmar Lerski, Transformations of Light (No.569), 1936

Out of the original face there arose, evoked by the varying lights, a hundred different faces, among them those of a hero, a prophet, a peasant, a dying soldier, an old woman, a monk. Did these portraits, if portraits they were, anticipate the metamorphoses which the young man would undergo in the future? Or were they just plays of light whimsically projecting on his face dreams and experiences forever alien to him? Proust would have been delighted in Lerski's experiment with its unfathomable implications."

Helmar Lerski, Hand of a Graphic Designer, 1944

In 1948 Lerski moved back to Zurich, where he spent the rest of his life. Other photographic series of Lerski include Jewish Faces, Arabic Faces and Human Hands.

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