Helmar Lerski, Pionnier, Guivat-Haïm, vers 1940
Helmar Lerski. Pioneer of the light
To celebrate its 20th anniversary and the 70th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, the mahJ presents the first exhibition in France dedicated to the photographer Helmar Lerski (1871-1956).
Before becoming one of the pioneers of photography and film in Palestine, Helmar Lerski was an innovative photographer in the United States from 1911 and a leading figure of the avant-garde in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s. In his photography, primarily portraits and influenced by theatre and cinema, he pursued his own, unique exploration of the expressive possibilities of light.
This retrospective, the first tribute to Lerski’s work in France, follows the mahJ’s recent acquisition of 435 prints and negatives, funded by public subscription.
The museum is also grateful to the Museum Folkwang in Essen, custodian of the artist’s estate, for its exceptional loans.
Born into a Polish Jewish family in Strasbourg in 1871, Israel Schmuklerski emigrated to the United States when he was twenty. There, he worked as an actor for a German-speaking theatre in Milwaukee from 1897 to 1909, adopting the pseudonym Helmar Lerski.
In 1909, he opened a photography studio with his first wife, Emilie Bertha Rossbach, specializing in portraits. His use of light soon attracted attention. Lerski considered that light enabled him to “bring out the depths of the soul,” but that it also has the demiurgic power to “turn the model into a god or demon, every human being having at least a bit of both in him.” Although the three portraits of Robert Mann still have a certain theatrical expressiveness, Lerski’s self-portrait, Demon, and his Head of John the Baptist fully illustrate the transformative power of light.
In 1915, Helmar Lerski returned to Europe and became a key figure in German Expressionist cinema. He worked as William Wauer’s director of photography on around ten films, none of which survived.
In 1917, he became technical director of Deutsche Bioscop, working with the film director Robert Reinert until 1921 on twentythree feature films, including Ahasver, a trilogy recounting the adventures of the
Wandering Jew, and the box-office successes Opium (1919) and Nerven (Nerves, 1919).
His contribution to Paul Leni’s Waxworks in 1924 went unacknowledged, even though the last sequence with Jack the Ripper was largely his work. An expert in the use of the Schüfftan process, a system of mirrors enabling actors to perform in front of enlarged models, he worked on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) and Carl Ludwig Achaz- Duisberg’s Sprengbagger 1010 (1929).
Berlin personalities and “Everyday Heads”
Helmar Lerski returned to photography in the late 1920s. His portraits of actors, artists and intellectuals paint a picture of the Berlin intelligentsia, ranging from the actress Eleonora von Mendelssohn, a descendant of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, to Veit Harlan, director of the Nazi propaganda film Jud Süß (1940). But he soon forsook portraits of personalities to photograph anonymous people, framing and lighting them during long posing sessions. The formal daring of this series, published in Berlin in 1931 as Everyday Heads, brought him close to the avant-garde, particularly to the photographers of the New Vision movement. Lerski heroicized his humble subjects with light, naming them merely “cleaning lady,” “metal worker,” “seamstress,” etc.
“Arabs and Jews”
In 1931, Lerski began working on the Jewish Faces series, to be published in the prestigious review Arts et métiers graphiques. For this purpose, he went to Palestine, later settling there in 1932. The series, begun in Berlin with a few portraits taken in an old people’s home, evolved in Palestine. The Jewish settlers there provided him with new physiognomies and alongside these “Jewish faces” there were those of the Bedouins
and Arabs. This project was his response to the instrumentalization of photography by Nazi ideology. Lerski produced a humanist portrait of the inhabitants of Palestine, removing them from any context to focus on the relief of the face itself. This series was initially entitled Arabs and Jews. The review Témoignages de notre temps published a selection of portraits in 1933 but the book was never published.
“Metamorphosis Through Light”
Tel Aviv, 1935-1936
In 1936, Helmar Lerski began work on the Metamorphosis Through Light series, which he regarded as his finest work. It consists of 137 portraits of the same man, a young Swiss engineer, photographed in different lights and from different angles to give him a variety of expressions. Working in bright sunlight on the roof of his studio at
16 Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, he used mirrors and reflectors to create sculptural light effects and metamorphose the face of his heat-exhausted subject. The transformations he had begun creating in the
1910s achieved their fulfilment. In this series, Lerski showed that “the photographer can create freely, characterise freely with the aid of light, according to his inner vision.”
In Palestine, Helmar Lerski regularly worked for Zionist organisations. For Keren Hayessod (United Israel Appeal), he directed Avoda (Work) in 1935. In 1939, he created a film workshop for the Histadrut (General
Organisation of Workers in Israel), which produced four short films under his supervision.
In the late 1930s, Lerski photographed Jewish settlers at work in several kibbutzim. He made full use of light reflectors and his compositions, often dominated by diagonals, are reminiscent of the Russian Constructivists. At the Fight and Work exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1943, he showed faces of Jewish Soldiers recruited by the British Army, which created the Jewish Brigade in 1944. Lerski also photographed landscapes and street scenes, in which the faces of children and adults are caught in chance encounters.
The last series
In the late 1930s, Lerski worked on previously unshown series. As his faces did, these “portraits” of hands express a profession, a skill and reveal a person’s soul. In 1941, due to scarcity of equipment, Lerski enlarged details of portraits from the Arabs and Jews and Metamorphosis Through Light series.
Isolating an eye, a temple or folds of skin, these images, entitled Landscape of the Human Face, concentrate his formal concerns into quasi-abstract visions. Around 1945, he photographed puppets created by the puppeteer Paul Löwy. He also made a film with Löwy, based on Balaam’s Story (Numbers, 22-24), in which he brought these marionettes to life, playing on lighting and extreme close-ups.
General Curator: Paul Salmona, mahJ
Curator: Nicolas Feuillie, mahJ
Voir en vidéo
This exhibition was organized in partnership with the Museum Folkwang in Essen.
It received support from the Délégation interministérielle à la lutte contre le racisme, l’antisémitisme et la haine anti-LGBT, the Direction régionale des Affaires culturelles de l’Île-de-France – ministère de la Culture and the Fondation Fams, under the aegis of the Fondation du Judaïsme français, the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah and the Fondation Pro mahJ.