Nathan Lerner, a photographer, designer and teacher, died on Feb. 8 at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago. He was 83, and lived in Chicago.
Mr. Lerner’s long career was inextricably bound up in the history of visual culture in Chicago. Born in 1913 to immigrants from Ukraine, he began studying painting at the Art Institute of Chicago at the age of 16, taking up the camera to perfect his compositional skills. At 22 he began doing a kind of photojournalism, developing his well-known series on ”Maxwell Street,” an immigrant neighborhood hit hard by the Depression, and also photographing the southern Illinois mining area.
In 1936 when the New Bauhaus was established in Chicago by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Mr. Lerner became one of its first scholarship students and turned increasingly to photographic experimentation. He began making semi-abstract, strongly Constructivist images involving luminous projections, solarization, photograms and other methods, and his interest in manipulating light led him to invent the first ”light box.” In 1939 he became the assistant of Gyorgy Kepes, head of the school’s light workshop; together, they wrote ”The Creative Use of Light” (1941). With Charles Niedringhaus in 1942 he developed a machine for forming plywood that was used in making most of the school’s furniture.
After working as a civilian light expert for the Navy in New York during World War II, Mr. Lerner returned to the school, now called the Institute of Design, and was named education director after Moholy-Nagy’s death in 1946. He left in 1949, opening a design office that became nationally known for its furniture, building systems and glass and plastic containers (including bottles for Revlon and Neutrogena and the Honeybear honey container). (read more)