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Keld Helmer-Petersen (1920-2013) was among the most influential Danish photographers of the 20th century. Above all, it was his work with colour that contributed to an independent, artistic perception of the medium. His career stretched over seven decades. He remained enormously productive throughout his whole life, and with his interest in experimentation, he continuously challenged the possibilities of photography. open up a whole new chapter in 35mm photography. Helmer-Petersen was certainly not a colour photography romantic who wanted to discover the world in a new way, as suggested by the promotional literature. He had a modern eye: trained according to the precepts of the new objectivity of the twenties. He mostly found the motifs he photographed in the industrial and port districts of his home town, Copenhagen. Using narrow excerpts, with a clear and very graphic sensitivity, he turned details of architecture and daily life into perfect picture compositions. His photo book, 122 Farvefotografier (122 Colour Photographs), published in 1948, is today considered to be one of the earliest examples of artistically-conceived colour photography. It was a courageous step at the time. Helmer-Petersen confidently described his approach in the foreword: “I present this collection of pictures to the public, well aware that at the moment a purely aesthetic outlook in the field of photography is subject to strong denunciation.” He did not see colour as a subject to be delimited; rather colour became form in his photography.

The book enjoyed international success: some of the pictures were reproduced in the British Photography Year Book, and the U.S. magazine Life immediately ordered seven motifs. That represented more than just an exceptionally lucrative sale for the young photographer: with an invitation from Life and a grant from the Danish-American Foundation, he was able to study at the Institute of Design in Chicago, in 1950/51.

During his long career as a photographer and film maker, Helmer-Petersen was always delighted by the innovative experimental possibilities of photography. His self-confident colour photographs still appear modern and relevant, and make his early commitment to colour all the more memorable. Upcoming August 23 marks the centenary of his birth, and we pay tribute with a selection of pictures from his oeuvre. (Ulrich Rüter)

All images on this page: © Estate of Keld Helmer-Petersen; courtesy Rocket Gallery London
Keld Helmer-Petersen 1940 with his first Leica

Keld Helmer-Petersen

Keld Helmer-Petersen was born in Copenhagen on August 23, 1920. He began taking pictures after finishing school, and his work was already shown at a photo exhibition in Copenhagen in 1940. In addition to training as a bookseller and publisher, he focused particular attention upon colour photography, which was still in its infancy. After studying in the USA, he began working as a professional photographer and for television. From 1964 to 1990, he was a Professor of Photography at the Copenhagen Architecture Academy. He passed away in Copenhagen on March 5, 2013. His archive is kept by his son, Jan.

International representation: Rocket Gallery
Keld Helmer-Petersen was featured as a Leica Classic in the LFI magazine, issue 7/2015.
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