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.
Helmar Lerski (Israel Schmuklerski) was born in Strassbourg in 1871. Since 1876 his family moved to Zurich.
Having devoted over 20 years to an actor’s career in the USA Lerski was involved in photography. Afterwards through all his life Lerski alternates the two spheres of photography and cinema. Just beginning the way of a photographer Lerski widely uses the theatrical experience and utilizes the effects of forced stagey lighting in the portraits of his friends-actors.
Thereafter the unique style of Lerski portrait, uncommon for America of that time, starts coming out: contrasting light that enables to exclude all the individual, uncommon and underlines the universal, archetypical. The organization of light was always the main part 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”.
Lerski managed to reverse our traditional notion of portrait art without applying any of supernatural technical devices. His know-how reduces to a large-scaled camera, mirrors and contact prints. It was all about the concept, the approach of an artist to the portrait execution. He neither followed the well-trodden way of attaining meticulous likeness of a portrait and a model nor he tried to render the individual features of a face. With the help of numerous mirrors and specific filters he managed to achieve such a forceful light-and- shade effects that the surface of a man’s face began o look like a sculptural landscape, abstract relief. Lerski himself deemed the ability to convey alternability of a face, its transformations and metamorphosis depending on camera angle and lighting his main breakthrough.
The Palestine portraits became one of Lerski’s most important work series as a photographer. After several trips to Palestine since 1931 Lerski introduced to the world the portrait series of such an expressiveness and formal innovation that its appearance crossed the limits of simply an art event and called the ideological, nationalistic and religious discussions. While creating his famous Judaic portraits, the artist was obsessed by the idea of the official documentation of Jewish nation characters in all its importance 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”.
Such phrases drawn from context and true intentions of the artist who solved his formal tasks only, raised a storm of negativism and polemics, together with accusations of an author of being led by his sharp pro-Zionist views.
Nevertheless intellectual elite of that time defended Lerski among whom was Albert Einstein. Afterwards he would become an author of a foreword to Lerski catalogue «Jewish Heads». “The Jews today are more a national than a religious community. The documentation of this type, as difficult a task as it may be, thus fulfills an active wish…”
Later this series was enhanced by the Arab characters and hands portraits exhibited thereafter in the Tel-Aviv Museum (1945).
Lerski had never been an Orthodox Judaist. Furthermore he took the Jew religion only in the early 30s in the situation of militant and progressing antisemitism still with the help of his art Lerski explores his own understanding of Judaism, searches his national and historical identification.
An intellectual, a person of multimedia consciousness having been for not less than half a century ahead of his time Lerski also brought in plenty of innovations in the cinematography. The leading critics put Lerski films («Avdah», «Adamah») in one row with «The Battleship Potemkin» by Eisenstein and «Triumph of the Will» Leni Riefenstahl due to its rhythm, dynamics, revolutionary montage.
Nowadays Helmar Lerski together with Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, is acknowledged in the professional environment as one of the classics and main innovators of the 20 century photography.