Under Exposed

Keld Helmer-Petersen is the best photographer you’ve never heard of. But a new book looks set to claim his place in the history of photography

The images on these pages could easily be the work of any number of photographers working today: one with a strong graphic sensibility; another keen on the interplay of silhouette and shadow; a third absorbed in light and colour. In fact, they’re all the work of one man: Keld Helmer-Petersen, a Danish imagemaker who has spent most of his working life as an architectural photographer. Even more surprising is that he took most of these photographs over fifty years ago.

Helmer-Petersen is currently enjoying something of a rediscovery. The photographer has found himself at the centre of a resurgence of interest in his work, culminating this month in the publication of his new book, Photographs 1941-1995. This collection, published in his 87th year, serves to debunk one of the myths in photography’s decidedly US-centric history: that colour photography as a creative medium flashed into existence with William Eggleston’s exhibition at MoMA in 1976. Previous to that watershed moment in the US, Helmer-Petersen had already quietly published his colour pictures in a beautiful art book in Copenhagen almost 30 years earlier.

Post-war European photography has been the subject of a re-examination over the last few decades. Conventional interpretations of the development of the medium focus on the rude health of the photography scene in the US during that period – with many American museums already beginning to take an interest in the medium as a viable artform. While the reportage industry was centred in Paris (becoming the dominant form of European photography into the 50s and 60s) this wasn’t the ideal environment for a young Danish photographer with modernist sensibilities, whose work didn’t fit into the contextualist mould that required that photography (and black and white photography at that) had to be “about” something.

As a teenager in the 1930s, Helmer-Petersen largely looked beyond his nation’s borders for artistic kinship: to movements such as De Stijl in Holland and, more significantly, to the Bauhaus in Germany. “Bauhaus, of course, had been going for some time but it was fascinating in its simplicity and the emphasis on abstraction intrigued me,” Helmer-Petersen recalls. “I, too, found myself doing work where I was getting rid of the superfluous detail – cleaning up, if you like.”

Helmer-Petersen explored Copenhagen with his camera (he had been given a Leica III c in 1938) and was already moving away from representational photography: his stark images of an Arne Jacobson-designed gas station in Skovshoved, fixating on the lines and surfaces of the building, revealed his gift for elucidating abstract forms. But for the young photographer – rapidly acquiring an eye for the graphic patterns and abstractions that could be captured with a camera – colour, too, was becoming another way of understanding form.

“I thought it was a challenge,” he says of his move from black and white to colour. “All of a sudden there was colour on the market; German transparencies were all you could get during the occupation. So I thought: what can you do with it? To what extent can I carry out my interest in form and composition? It was a different way of thinking: in black and white you thought in terms of contrast, the way the light was the primary motivation. In colour it was the way that you set colours together. You had to rethink the whole business.”

In 1948, Helmer-Petersen self-financed the publication of his first book, 122 Farvefotografier (122 Colour Photographs) with help from his family. An original edition, according to the auctions page at photoeye.com, is currently valued at somewhere between £1,000 and £1,250. The book sold well in Denmark and Sweden but when a copy was placed on the desk of Wilson Hicks, picture editor at LIFE magazine in New York, Helmer-Petersen’s life as a photographer changed dramatically. Hicks, so impressed by a photographer who understood the potential in the formal qualities of colour, promptly gave seven pages of the November 1949 edition over to Helmer-Petersen’s pictures.

Of more importance to Helmer-Petersen’s personal development, however, was that his work in LIFE was seen by the Institute of Design in Chicago, who then invited him over to visit the school. His earlier influences had come full-circle: the Institute was the new name for the New Bauhaus, the institution that László Moholy-Nagy had taken from Germany in search of a new home in 1937. Furthermore, Helmer-Petersen had long admired the photographic experiments of its talented US staff, in particular those of Harry Callahan. “If you wanted inspiration from the Bauhaus,” says Helmer-Petersen, “you went to Chicago.”

Aged 30, he was asked to take evening classes whilst also given the option to study at the school. There for only a year, it proved to be an inspirational time and marked his work as an architectural photographer for the rest of his working life. “I got a great kick out of the environment,” he recalls. “It was so different from the sea air and blue skies in Copenhagen. It was very polluted, so much smoke in the air all the time. But you had this light grey quality, a bleak, white sky that gave you an immediate feeling that all was in silhouette. To me it was quite a gift to get the silhouettes: there were enormous possibilities for these images.”

Helmer-Petersen went on to teach for 25 years at the School of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Art in Copenhagen and much that he learnt in Chicago (in the darkroom experiments, for example) informed both his teaching and working methods. “It wasn’t my job to make the architecture students artists, but I wanted to stress the things photography could do that drawing could not; like capturing the flare of the sun.”

Further examples of what “photography could do” are dotted throughout his latest book. His “light drawings” reveal an artist keen on experimenting with the physical capabilities of the camera and many of the images produced in this way (moving the camera while keeping the shutter open) have been imitated countless times over the years by other photographers. In his “cameraless” work where he worked solely with chemicals in the darkroom, abandoning the camera altogether, the images have a timeless quality: they evoke both Man Ray and Nick Knight simultaneously.

Collected together in this huge volume it’s difficult to comprehend how Helmer-Petersen’s work had gone under the radar of photographic histories for so long. Certainly, re-interest in his beautiful work has been helped by other photographers, particularly Martin Parr, who met with Helmer-Petersen at his Copenhagen apartment some years ago and arranged to show his work at the Rencontres d’Arles festival in France in 2005. “I asked him if he had any of the original slides [from the 122 Colour Photographs book] and he said, yes 66, around half,” says Parr. “I then selected from these the 20 or so that we rescanned and printed: these new scans brought the photographs alive. Of course, I was attracted to his work because, for its time, it was fairly radical yet – as is often the case with overlooked photographers – no credit had been given to him outside of his native Denmark.”

The reprints were exhibited in France and then published as a limited edition, called 23 Photographs, by the publisher Chris Boot. In London, Jonathan Stephenson of the Rocket Gallery (the distributors of the latest book) professed an interest in showing the Arles work and, aged 85, Helmer-Petersen found himself enjoying what he now happily refers to as his “second wind”.

Talking on the phone from Copenhagen, the city where he first established his art in the 1930s, Helmer-Petersen seems very content to see it flourish again in 2007. “I still feel quite young,” he says, “but I have had to give up driving and also cycling – and I used to go all over Copenhagen.” And of his other passion? “Photography? I must say that I’m not too interested in doing any more work,” he says. “I have enough pictures here for many more books.”

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