07.02 — 10.03.2008One Man ShowHelmar Lerski

Helmar Lerski (Israel Schmuklerski) was born in Strasbourg in 1871.
In 1876 his family moved to Zurich. Later in 1888, Lerski emigrated to the United States. 

After more than 20 years as an actor in the United States, Lerski became involved in photography. Thereafter, throughout his life, he alternated between photography and cinema. As a photographer, Lerski extensively used his theatrical experience and applied the effects of stage lighting to the portraits of his actor friends.

From then on, Lerski’s unique style of portraiture, unusual for America at the time, began to emerge. He did not follow the well-trodden path of achieving an exact resemblance to a portrait and did not try to capture individual face features. In contrast to it he focused on the universal imagery and archetypes, utilizing contrasting light as a filter to eliminate all inaccuracies. Using numerous mirrors and special filters, he was able to achieve such strong light and shadow effects that the surface of the human face began to resemble a sculpted landscape or an abstract relief.

Lerski had succeeded in overturning the traditional notion of portraiture without the use of any extraordinary technical devices. His technique comes down to a large-format camera, mirrors and contact prints. It was all about the concept and the artist’s approach to the fulfillment of the portrait.

Artist himself considered his main breakthrough to his ability to convey the facial changes, their transformations and metamorphosis in response to the camera angle and lighting. The light setup was always a basic element of Lerski’s artistic method: “Light is a proof that a photographer can create freely, following his mind’s eye, like a painter, designer, or sculptor”.

The Palestinian portraits became one of Lerski’s most important series of works. After several trips to Palestine since 1931, he presented to public a series of portraits of such expressive and formal innovation that its appearance transcended a mere artistic event by provoking ideological, nationalist, and religious debates. While creating his famous Judaic portraits, artist was obsessed with the idea of official documentation of the Jewish national character in all its significance and grandeur:

“I want to show only the prototype in all its off-shoots, and what is more, I want to show him so intensely that the prototype is recognizable in all later branches…”

Despite the resonance raised, the intellectual elite of the time supported Lerski. Among the sympathizers of his work was Albert Einstein, who later became the author of the introductions to artist’s ‘Jewish Faces’ catalog. Later this series was enhanced by the ‘Arabic Faces’ and ‘Working Hands’ photographs exhibited thereafter in the Tel-Aviv Museum (1945).

As a multimedia artist, at least half a century ahead of his time, Lerski brought many innovations to cinema as well. With its special rhythm, dynamics, and revolutionary montage techniques, the leading critics ranked Lerski’s films (‘Avdah’, ‘Adamah’) alongside Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’ and Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triumph of the Will’.

Nowadays Helmar Lerski, along with Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, is considered by experts to be one of the classics and major innovators by the 20th century photography.


Tel Aviv Museum or Art (Tel Aviv, Israel)
Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) (New York, NY, USA)
The Israel Museum (Jerusalem, Israel)
The Museum of Art and History of Judaism (ManJ) (Paris, France)
Albertina Museum (Vienna, Austria)
The Currier Museum of art (Manchester, NH, USA)
The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) (Toronto, Canada)

07.02 — 10.03.2008One Man ShowHelmar Lerski