About the Work
Helmar Lerski photographed the face of the construction engineer Leo Uschatz in a series of 140 closeups. Working in the blazing sun on a roof terrace in Tel Aviv, he achieved his dramaturgical lighting effects with up to sixteen mirrors and flags that helped him vary the intensity of the shadows. Having fled the National Socialists, the photographer and cameraman thus continued the studies in portrait photography he had begun in Berlin. He had already published his photo book Everyday Heads, containing closeup shots of anonymous persons, in 1931. Presented as impenetrable surfaces of mask-like rigidity, their faces speak of the conflict between emotionality and ideality. | Städel Museum
Über das Werk
Das Gesicht des Bautechnikers Leo Uschatz fotografierte Helmar Lerski in einer Serie von 140 Großaufnahmen. Die dramaturgische Lichtwirkung erzielte er mithilfe von bis zu 16 Spiegeln und Blenden, mit denen er in der prallen Sonne auf einer Dachterrasse in Tel Aviv unterschiedlich starke Schlagschatten erzeugen konnte. Damit setzte der vor den Nationalsozialisten geflüchtete Fotograf und Kameramann seine in Berlin begonnenen Studien zur Porträtfotografie fort. Bereits 1931 veröffentlichte er den Bildband Köpfe des Alltags, in dem er in nahsichtigen Aufnahmen unbekannte Menschen fotografierte. Ihre Gesichter werden maskenhaft-starr als undurchsichtige Oberfläche präsentiert und zeigen einen Konflikt zwischen Emotionalität und Idealität. | Städel Museum
At the beginning of 1936, Helmar Lerski started a new portraiture series. His model was a Jewish worker, who Lerski called ‘Uschatz’. In the next three months he produced 175 images of the man remembered as a jack of all trades in Lerski’s office.
Lerski had conceived his metamorphosis project as early as 1930. When asked about further plans, he responded to the film critic, Hans Feld, that he later wanted to “create a book of portraits of somebody. Fifty images of one and the same person”.
Working on the rooftop terrace of Lerski’s flat in Tel Aviv in the bright, morning sun, Lerski continually directed the light towards his model’s face, using a great number of mirrors. Designated by Lerski as his magnum opus, ‘Metamorphosis through Light’ was to “furnish proof, that a photographer can create freely, following his mind’s eye, like a painter, or sculpture.”
Lerski managed to reverse our traditional notion of portrait art without applying any of supernatural technical devices. 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.
“Light is a proof, that a photographer can create freely, following his mind’s eye, like a painter, designer, or sculptor”.
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”.
Later this series was enhanced by the Arab characters and hands portraits exhibited thereafter in the Tel-Aviv Museum (1945).
An intellectual, a person of multimedia consciousness having been for not less than half a century ahead of his time. 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.
Exhibitions: Helmar Lerski. Gary Tatintsian Gallery, Moscow, Russia. February – March 2008