Transformations Through Light – Photos by Helmar Lerski

There’s an interesting reference resource for all you CGI modellers and lighting artists looking for new ways to build on the standard three lamps setup. Take some time to study an exhibition of eighty-eight photographs by Helmar Lerski (1871–1956) currently showing at the Ubu Gallery in New York and running until the 25th of June, 2010.

The show is called “Transformations Through Light”, and it demonstrates Lerski’s skill at moulding his model’s features into dramatic volumes; a skill he learned and practiced as a cinematographer in the avant-garde German cinema of the nineteen twenties and thirties.

His compositions lent an air of grandeur to all of his subjects, even though many of them were beggars, labourers, and people found in dole (welfare) queues.

thumbnail of From The Factory
(Aus dem Werk) “From The Factory”, 1936
(Please click this image to enlarge it)

Lerski was involved concurrently in the two major, emergent mediums of his time: film and photography. Born in Alsace in the then German city of Strausburg, he became involved in the theater and, in 1896, moved to New York to pursue a career in acting, eventually working at the Irving Place Theater and later the German Pabst Theater. It was in this setting that Lerski first became aware of the unique visual effects achievable with stage lighting. Drawing from his acting experience, he began investigating photography as an artistic medium after meeting his wife, also a photographer. While photographing their colleagues, Lerski experimented with a series of portraits that severely manipulated the lighting effects. The resulting images formed a base for his later success in both commercial and art photography.

Extreme close-up of dramatically lit male model.
(Verwandlungen des Lichts) “Untitled” 1936

Extreme close-up of a boy from Yemen, dramatically lit.
(Yemenititischer Knabe) “Yemenite Boy” 1933.

Close-up of a farm labourer's hands holding the handle of a tool.
(Hände eines Landarbeiters) “Farm labourer’s hands” 1944

Extreme lighting on the face of a housekeeper, by Helmar Lerski.
(Die Hausangestellte) “The Housekeeper” 1929

This body of work upholds the artist’s declaration that “in every human being there is everything; the question is only what the light falls on.”

Among Lerski’s many models was a young Francis Bacon, who had a dramatic studio portrait taken by Helmar Lerski, “a Swiss photographer and cinematographer”. Bacon was later to tell Stephen Spender that he had been very impressed by the work of the photographer who had produced striking effects using mirrors and natural light filtered through screens, but that he could not remember the artist’s name.” (Surprise!)

Not all of Lerski’s subjects were portrayed in this stark dramatic style, he made some dreamy portraits of a fellow film maker Leni Riefenstahl, who incidentally lived to the ripe old age of 101.

thumbnail of Leni Riefenstahl
(Click for pin-up size version)

The Tate Modern has a small collection of Lerski’s work.

There’s a tiny link to a PDF of thumbnails of all the photos in the Ubu Gallery page, and here’s a direct link.

Link to The Ubu Gallery