Helmar Lerski: Metamorphosis

12 March to 22 May 2005


There can hardly be another name in the international history of photography whose work has been so frequently misunderstood and so controversially evaluated as that of Helmar Lerski (1871-1956). "In every human being there is everything; the question is only what the light falls on". Guided by this conviction, Lerski took portraits that did not primarily strive for likeness but which left scope for the viewer's imagination, thus laying himself open to the criticism of betraying the veracity of the photographic image. Today, Lerski who was born in Strasbourg in 1871 as Israel Schmuklerski and whose hometown was Zurich, is among the international classic photographers in the history of the medium.

The Schmuklerski family settled in Zurich in 1876. Helmar's father, a small-time textile dealer, was "the first Polish Jew" to be granted the civil rights of the City of Zurich. In 1888, Lerski abandoned the banking career for which he was designated and immigrated to the USA, where he earned his living as an actor. It was not until 1910, when he was 39, that he became involved with photography through his wife, an actress from a photographer's family. His unusual portraits, which worked with lighting effects, attracted considerable attention in the USA.

In 1915 Lerski returned to Europe and started a career in cinematography. For over ten years, he worked as a cameraman, lighting technician and expert on special effects for numerous expressionistic silent films in Berlin, among others Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1925/26). At the end of the 1920s, he turned his attention once again to portrait photography and took part in the avant-garde movement that was trying to effect radical changes in the language of the photographic image. At the legendary Werkbund exhibition "Film und Foto" (1929), at which the New Photography made its greatest appearance at first in Stuttgart and subsequently in Zurich, Lerski - who had in the meantime become the best-known portrait photographer of his time - was well represented with 15 photographs.

But Lerski's pictures were only partly in line with the maxims of the New Photography, and they questioned the validity of pure objectivity. The distinguishing characteristics of his portraits included a theatrical-expressionistic, sometimes dramatic use of lighting inspired by the silent film. Although his close-up photographs captured the essential features of a face - eyes, nose and mouth -, his primary concern was not individual appearance or superficial likeness but the deeper inner potential: he emphasised the changeability, the different faces of an individual. Lerski, who sympathised with the political left wing, thereby infiltrated the photography of types that was practised  (and not infrequently misused for racist purposes) by many of Lerski's contemporaries.

In his book "Köpfe des Alltags" (1931), a milestone in the history of photographic books, Lerski clearly expressed his convictions: he showed portraits of anonymous people from the underclass of the Berlin society, presenting them as theatrical figures so that professional titles such as "chamber maid", "beggar" or "textile worker" appeared as arbitrarily applied roles. Thus his photographs may be interpreted as an important opposite standpoint to the work of August Sander, who was at the same time working on his project "Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts" - that large-scale attempt at a social localisation of various representatives of the Weimar society.

But Helmar Lerski's attitude was at its most radical in his work entitled "Metamorphosis". This was completed within a few months at the beginning of 1936 in Palestine, to where Lerski and his second wife Anneliese had immigrated in 1932. In "Verwandlungen durch Licht" (this is the second title for this work), Lerski carried his theatrical talent to extremes. With the help of up to 16 mirrors and filters, he directed the natural light of the sun in constant new variations and refractions onto his model, the Bernese-born, at the time out-of-work structural draughtsman and light athlete Leo Uschatz. Thus he achieved, in a series of over 140 close-ups "hundreds of different faces, including that of a hero, a prophet, a peasant, a dying soldier, an old woman and a monk from one single original face" (Siegfried Kracauer). According to Lerski, these pictures were intended to provide proof "that the lens does not have to be objective, that the photographer can, with the help of light, work freely, characterise freely, according to his inner face." Contrary to the conventional idea of the portrait as an expression of human identity, Lerski used the human face as a projection surface for the figures of his imagination. We are only just becoming aware of the modernity of this provocative series of photographs.

After the war, Helmar Lerski returned to Zurich with his wife and started working again on film projects. Various attempts at publishing his main work "Metamorphosis" failed - despite the support of renowned art historians such as Konrad Farner who compared Lerski's importance with that of Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen and Paul Strand. Today, the professional world is agreed that Helmar Lerski was among the important innovators of 20th century photography. But in Switzerland, Lerski's home, his name is barely known to the wider public. With the exhibition borrowed from the photographic collection at the Folkwang Museum in  Essen, the Fotostiftung Schweiz pays homage to a classical figure of photography who has been most unjustifiably suppressed and forgotten.

Peter Pfrunder
Fotostiftung Schweiz

The book of the exhibition:
Florian Ebner, Metamorphosen des Gesichts. Die "Verwandlungen durch Licht" von Helmar Lerski. Steidl Verlag, Göttingen 2002.
on 20 April, at 8 p.m., Florian Ebner (Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig) will speak on the theme of Lerski's Metamorphosis - a provocation for photography. This will be followed by a guided tour through the exhibition.