Late artistic recognition and rediscoveries can be bluesy affairs, full of sin and redemption: some grievous or unfortunate oversight has occurred, but with time and hindsight perhaps the error can be righted, the spirits lifted, the artist given the credit (even if posthumously) he was long denied. Danish photographer Keld Helmer-Petersen’s underknown, trailblazing series 122 Color Photographs is currently receiving its first solo show in New York, courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery. (Helmer-Petersen passed away in 2013.)
Originally self-published in 1948, Helmer-Petersen’s inquisitive, close-up color shots of mundane, modern things (a fire hydrant, door knob, water pipe, ship ventilation pipe) got off to a good start, doing well in Denmark and Sweden before being picked up and featured in a seven-page spread in the November 1949 issue of Life magazine. That notice was enough to get Helmer-Petersen a grant from the American-Scandinavian Foundation and, in turn, some work at Life. He later enrolled at the Chicago Institute of Design, where he studied under photographer Harry Callahan. But it didn’t last, these blips of red and blue in an otherwise black-and-white art orthodoxy: when he returned home to Denmark in the early 1950s, Helmer-Petersen entered into a successful but largely black-and-white architectural photography career. And so the story came to be told that fashion, travel, and advertising photographers (and a few enterprising, prescient figures like Robert Capa) were the sole practitioners of polychromatic pictures before American iconoclasts William Eggleston and Stephen Shore broke the color barrier in the late 1970s.
But Helmer-Petersen came before them — a fact that this show and Errata Editions’ 2012 republication of 122 Color Photographs have been helping bring to light, along with advocacy by photographer Martin Parr. Interestingly, Helmer-Petersen’s work shares some likeness with Eggleston’s; both drew close to the odd and omnipresent allure of the ordinary stirring around them. In the introduction to 122 Color Photographs, Helmer-Petersen wrote: “The pictures aim at illustrating nothing whatever beyond the fact that we are surrounded by many beautiful and exciting things, and that there can be a great deal of pleasure in spotting them and capturing their beauty by means of color photography.”
In these photos — shot between 1941 and 1947, while working in a Copenhagen bookstore — he practiced a kind of synecdochism, seeing parts of the world as fragmented, intensified, beautiful pieces of the whole. Born in Denmark in 1920, Helmer-Petersen drew on Bauhaus and the New Objectivity artistic movements in nearby Germany from a young age, embracing their interests in abstract composition, color forms, and the built, emerging mass-produced world. This focus set Helmer-Petersen apart among photographers: his joy in paring things down to geometric planes, flattening perspective to draw out abstract shapes and related, reinforcing hues, viewing color as form.
His camera closes in on a red golf flag; a silver can set against a yellow and salmon corner; a Texaco building, with the sky and a nearby overhang doubling as flattened planes of blue and brown. Helmer-Petersen was an impressively early master of color film. The 122 Color Photographs are often bracingly mundane and occasionally uncanny: a view of a wooden scaffolding — taken from such a point that the space between each board seems to narrow — plainly and strikingly comments on color, movement, and perspective. Shadows lend a layer of embodied mystery.
Commenting on the book’s re-release, critic and curator Rick Poynor noted an affinity between Helmer-Petersen’s photos and Surrealism’s mystification of found objects. But Helmer-Petersen seems more interested in how, through careful choices of distance, subject, and framing, the camera can unlock a field of abstraction latent amid the familiar, mundane world — a sort of Bauhaus-inspired, or perhaps quantum, spin on Capa’s famous dictum: “If your pictures aren’t abstract enough, you’re not close enough.” Helmer-Petersen’s are almost always good enough — at least the 23 of them on display as Yossi Milo. Not included in the exhibition are some of the lesser 122 Color Photographs, including a few very plain portraits and close-ups of hands — forgettable entries in an otherwise seminal early color effort that ought to be remembered and probably enjoyed.
Keld Helmer-Petersen: 122 Color Photographs continues at Yossi Milo Gallery (245 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through August 29.