Nathan Lerner

(1913 - 1997) American


Nathan Lerner was an influential graphic designer, photographer and educator who helped transmit Bauhaus ideas in the United States during the 1940s. A native of Chicago, he began making photographs while a teenager, documenting the effects of the Depression on his neighborhood. Initially his goal was to be a painter, but when he grew frustrated with a teacher's preference for Impressionism over the art of Picasso and Matisse, he sought out Alexander Archipenko at the New Bauhaus in Chicago. After interviewing with László Moholy-Nagy, the founder and director of the school, and being offered a scholarship, Lerner entered the New Bauhaus in 1937. He then began to make experimental photographs in addition to his documentary work. From 1941 to 1943, Lerner was head of the photography department at the Institute of Design (a later incarnation of the New Bauhaus), and from 1945 to 1949, the head of production design and dean of faculty and students. Lerner left the Institute of Design in 1949 in order to establish Lerner Design Associates, which produced many famous industrial designs, including those for the Honey Bear and Neutrogena soap; he remained there until his retirement in 1973.
Consistent with the teaching and philosophy of Moholy-Nagy, Lerner's mature photographs were experimental in nature and probed the structural characteristics of light and dark. In order to study these properties of the medium more thoroughly, Lerner developed new photographic instruments and techniques. He is credited with developing the light box, a tool for studying the tonal and directional behavior of light still in use in art schools today, and Moholy-Nagy considered him the inventor of "montage without scissors," a process of distorting images by combining dissimilar objects.
Lisa Hostetler
Handy et al. Reflections in a Glass Eye: Works from the International Center of Photography Collection, New York: Bulfinch Press in association with the International Center of Photography, 1999, p. 220.
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