Keld Helmer-Petersen : Another world

Keld Helmer-Petersen (1920-2013) was a Danish artist and pioneering photographer whose images enhanced our experience of the world and expanded our understanding of what photography can be.

Beginning in the 1940s, he questioned the traditional definition of photography as documentation and worked to establish it as an autonomous field of art, with the same freedom as drawing or painting. Over the following seven decades, from his early experiments with color film to his use of digital techniques, Helmer-Petersen confounded conventional notions of subject matter, composition and technique as he discovered the inherent beauty of the accidental, the overlooked and the discarded. This is how he worked on the margins of modern life, wandering through harbors, rail yards and back streets, and created a visual poetry of the outskirts. Helmer-Petersen began taking photographs in 1938, creating black and white images that were largely inspired by the photos of Albert Renger-Patzsch – a champion of the Neue Sachlicheit movement. During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, 1940-45, when Agfacolors were the only films available, Helmer-Petersen began taking pictures without narration that treated color as a subject matter.

In 1948, he published a selection of these images in the pioneering photobook 122 Farvefotografier/122 Colour Photographs. The book led to a scholarship that enabled him to attend the Institute of Design in Chicago (originally founded as the New Bauhaus) where he studied with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, all the while teaching nighttime classes during 1950-51. After his return to Denmark, he supported his family through architectural photography and teaching, while pursuing his own artistic practice over the following six decades. In his final decade, Helmer-Petersen embraced digital technology as another method to produce images and published three experimental photobooks: Black Noise (2010), (2011), and Black Light (2014). Regardless of the period, Helmer-Petersen’s images were always inspired by his observation of the visible world. He concluded Black Light with a quote from the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard; « Il y a assurément un autre monde, mais il est dans celui-ci. » (There might be another world, but it is within this one.)

This exhibition is a tribute to Helmer-Petersen’s vision and journey from observation to abstraction, from composition to creation, from the darkroom to the digital realm. The point of departure is a group of pictures from 122 Farverfotografier, which serves as a corner stone to understand his oeuvre. Other series of images assembled from different periods of his career reveal the main motifs of his work; lines and frames, symbols and surfaces, which guided Helmer-Petersen as he developed his vision and explored his own world.

The exhibition has been curated and designed by Michael Sheridan, New York architect and a leading authority on modern Danish architecture and design. His books on the subject include The Furniture of Poul Kjærholm: Catalogue Raisonné, and Landmarks: The Modern House in Denmark, and his previous exhibitions include Poul Kjærholm: Furniture Architect at the Louisiana Museum of Art in 2006. Sheridan’s research for these projects led him to work in close collaboration with Keld Helmer-Petersen, which is now resulting in a groundbreaking exhibition of the artist’s work.

The exhibition has been organised in close collaboration with Jan Helmer-Petersen, the artist’s son, The National Museum of Photography/Denmark’s Royal Library, which holds Keld Helmer-Petersen’s archive, The Photographers Print and the photographer Jens Frederiksen.

Tuesday-Friday 1pm-7pm
Saturday and Sunday 1pm-6pm
Closed on Monday
Free admission

Exhibition organised by the Cultural Department of the Embassy of Denmark

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