Nathan Lerner, whose parents were Ukrainian emigrants, was born in Chicago in 1913. At the age of nine he attended painting courses at the Art Institute, and at sixteen started to use the camera to aid and “perfect his sense of composition.” When Lerner was 18 years old he left to study with Samuel Ostrovsky, a Russian-French, post-impressionist painter, who was interested in expressing light. In 1935, Lerner began a photo documentary project that developed into his well-known series, “Maxwell Street”. Much of Lerner’s work at this time was as a “witness of life during the Great Depression in the poorest immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago”.
In 1937 Archipenko, the well-known sculptor, recommended the New Bauhaus school to Lerner. Archipenko had moved to Chicago to teach at the New Bauhaus, which was under the direction of Moholy-Nagy. Awarded a scholarship by Moholy, Lerner enrolled and found himself strongly influenced by the spirit that permeated the school. He developed ingenious artistic experiments: luminous projections with reflection, cliche-verre, photographing through viscous substances, solarizations, and light drawings with pen. Most importantly, Lerner invented the light box which allowed photographers to create abstract studies of objects and light. The light box is mentioned by Moholy-Nagy in The New Vision (1939) and reproduced by Gropius in his Bauhaus 1914-1928 catalogue for the Modern Museum of New York (1938).
In 1939 Lerner became the assistant of Gyorgy Kepes, who was head of the light workshop, and co-authored with him The Creative use of Light (1941). In 1942 Lerner became the director of the light workshop.
In 1942, Lerner worked with Charles Niedringhaus developing a machine for forming plywood into furniture. Most of the furniture created at the School of Design used this machine.
In late 1943 he went to New York as a civilian light expert for the U.S. Navy.
In 1945, Lerner returned to the school now called the Institute of Design. Upon his return he was named dean of faculty and students, and as the head of the product design workshop. At Moholy-Nagy’s death in 1946, he was named educational director of the school by Walter Gropius. He left the school in 1949 in a disagreement over the school’s impending merger with I.I.T. He opened a design office and concentrated on the design of everyday objects.
In 1968 he married a Japanese pianist, Kiyoko Asai, which led to his discovery and fascination of Japan. Lerner photographed Japan intensively starting in 1970 and for the first time experimented with color. His first exhibition of color work was in 1972 at the Pentax Museum in Tokyo, his second exhibition was at Bradley University in 1973, which was followed by numerous others in Chicago, Berlin, Tokyo, and New York.
According to Lerner’s own testimony, the meeting with Moholy-Nagy was the cement of all his work. (Nathan Lerner, Emerging Wall Spirit, 1981)