The Sixteen Mirrored Photographer – Helmar Lerski

18 February 1871 – 19 September 1956


“In every human being there is everything; the question is only what the light falls on”.

A man who is guided by his persistence, created mesmersing portraits that were not only beautiful but were absolutely striking and unique, that in some of his photographs it is hard to tell if it is a photograph or a graphite drawing. Lerski was not fussed about pleasing people but he was concerned about making sure his work left scope for the viewer’s imagination. Today, Lerski who was born in Strasbourg in 1871 as Israel Schmuklerski and whose hometown was Zurich, is among some of the international classic photographers in the history of the medium.

In 1876 the Schmuklerski family settled in Zurich where Helmar’s father, was a small-time textile dealer, and became “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. In 1910 he became involved with photography through his wife, an actress from a photographer’s family. His unique take on portraiture, where he worked with various lighting effects, attracted considerable attention in the USA.

In 1915 Lerski returned to Europe and started a career in cinematography, which he pushed for over ten years, working as a cameraman, lighting technician and expert on special effects for numerous expressionistic silent films in Berlin, such as Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1925/26). By 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. His primary concern was not to capture just individual appearance but the deeper inner person: he emphasised the changeability, the different faces of an individual.

In his book “Köpfe des Alltags” (1931), which is an important photographic book, 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 random applied roles.

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. 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.”

Information: Fotostiftung Schweiz