This look at the refined, formal photography of Keld Helmer-Petersen, who experimented with color film in the 1940s, is yet another example of how art history is being revised as the 20th century recedes from memory. The conventional narrative has it that black-and-white film reigned in fine-art photography until the late 1960s, when Bill Eggleston introduced the use of Ektachrome slide film to create dye-transfer prints. But Eggleston was hardly the first, as Helmer-Petersen’s example demonstrates.
Still, Helmer-Petersen’s work wasn’t seen as art in his own day. When Life magazine published a seven-page spread of his images in 1949, they were presented in the context of photojournalism. Yet they were nothing like the “decisive moment” images usually promoted in Life that featured a millisecond of activity frozen for posterity. Helmer-Petersen favored inanimate subjects, mostly objects or architectural details: the angled, white-tiled roofline of a Texaco gas station, say, or a black, orange and silver steamship funnel set against an azure sky.
Helmer-Petersen hailed from Denmark, but he was influenced by German photography—the taxonomic sensibility of August Sander’s portraits of ordinary people and Karl Blossfeldt’s botanical studies, as well as the abstract approaches to the medium cultivated at the Bauhaus. Helmer-Petersen channeled both to direct our attention to things that are ordinarily overlooked, using color to tease out stately presences worthy of our attention.—Howard Halle