Black Noise , a book by Danish photographer Keld Helmer-Petersen's features a collection of high contrast abstract images reminiscent of his work from the 1960s. It includes flatbed and negative scans of black and white negatives, ink drawings, cut-up line negatives, even dead spiders, plants, old tape and misprinted supermarket receipts.
As a teenager in the 1930s, he looked 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... I, too, found myself doing work where I was getting rid of the superfluous detail – cleaning up, if you like ”
Fragments of a City , Chicago Photographs, 1960
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...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 ”
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. 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.
“ I thought it was a challenge to 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. ”
His recently published work 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.