When LIFE Magazine featured photographer Keld Helmer-Petersen in a spread in 1949, ten years after he began shooting, the photographer still insisted he was an amateur. From his first rolls of film, Helmer-Petersen demonstrated a sharp photographic eye, a mastery of his Leica, and a knack for making art out of ordinary objects, but humility and a straightforwardness set him apart from other masters of the medium. "I don't want my pictures to 'look like something.' They should just look like pictures."
His attention to craft made Helmer-Petersen a master of color photography. Color film has a reputation for being finicky—and in those days even more so: Early color film didn't render colors true-to-life and struggled in low light.
Despite mastering this notoriously tricky film, Helmer-Petersen is not a well-known photographic pioneer, certainly not like Henri Cartier-Bresson (the original master of "the decisive moment"), Robert Capa ("If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough."), or WeeGee ("F8 and be there"). But then, Helmer-Petersen didn't seem to have the out-sized ego that earns some photographers their reputation: "I have a great respect for photographic reporting, but I myself am no reporter," he told LIFE.
Unlike documentary photographers, including Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange who infused their images with specific markers of time and place, Helmer-Petersen stripped his images of context, giving them an abstract, untethered feel. They could have been taken at any point since the invention of color photography. The only indication that they're from an earlier time is the dated font of the Texaco logo and the retro design on the container labeled "lak."
With his camera, Helmer-Petersen flattened space, translating into a two-dimensional medium not just the objects and scenes he shot, but perspective itself. "Critics consider his compositions to be extraordinary photographic feats—pictures that are remarkable not for what they depict but for what they are," the 1949 LIFE Magazine article noted.
Beginning July 17, Yossi Milo Gallery in New York City will exhibit 23 of Helmer-Petersen's images from the collection "122 Color Photographs." A book of his photographs by the same name, published in 1948, is available for sale.