07.02 — 10.03.2008One Man ShowHelmar Lerski

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

After spending over 20 years as an actor in the United States, Lerski ventured into photography. Throughout his life, he continuously shifted between photography and cinema. Drawing on his theatrical background, Lerski incorporated stage lighting techniques into his portraiture, particularly when capturing images of his actor friends.

Lerski’s distinctive style of portraiture, which was unconventional for its time in America, began to emerge. Rather than striving for an exact likeness or capturing individual facial features, he focused on universal imagery and archetypes. He employed contrasting light as a filter to eliminate any inaccuracies. Using numerous mirrors and special filters, he achieved dramatic light and shadow effects, transforming the human face into a sculpted landscape or an abstract relief.

Remarkably, Lerski achieved these groundbreaking results without the use of extraordinary technical devices. His technique relied on a large-format camera, mirrors, and contact prints. The essence lay in his concept and artistic approach to portraiture.

Lerski considered his most significant breakthrough to be his ability to convey the facial changes, transformations, and metamorphoses resulting from camera angles and lighting. The setup of lighting was always a fundamental aspect 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”.

One of Lerski’s most important series of works revolved around Palestinian portraits. After multiple trips to Palestine starting in 1931, he presented a series of portraits that showcased expressive and formal innovations. These works transcended mere artistic events, provoking ideological, nationalist, and religious debates. While creating his renowned Judaic portraits, Lerski was driven by the desire to officially document 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 controversy stirred by his works, Lerski garnered support from the intellectual elite of the time. Notably, Albert Einstein, who later wrote introductions for Lerski’s “Jewish Faces” catalog, was among the sympathizers of his work. The series expanded to include “Arabic Faces” and “Working Hands” photographs, which were exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1945.

As a multimedia artist well ahead of his time, Lerski introduced numerous innovations to cinema. His films, such as “Avdah” and “Adamah”, featured a unique rhythm, dynamic compositions, and revolutionary editing techniques. Esteemed critics regarded Lerski’s films on par with Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin” and Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will”.

Today, experts consider Helmar Lerski, alongside Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, to be one of the 20th century’s photography classics and major innovators.


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