Helmar Lerski (1871-1956) who was born in Strasbourg in 1871 as Israel Schmuklerski and whose hometown was Zurich, is among the international classic photographers in the history of the medium.
The Schmuklerski family settled in Zurich in 1876. Helmar’s father, a small-time textile dealer, was “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. It was not until 1910, when he was 39, that he became involved with photography through his wife, an actress from a photographer’s family. His unusual portraits, which worked with lighting effects, attracted considerable attention in the USA.
In 1915 Lerski returned to Europe and started a career in cinematography. For over ten years, he worked as a cameraman, lighting technician and expert on special effects for numerous expressionistic silent films in Berlin, among others Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1925/26). At 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.