A Look at the Serious Work of Funnyman Jerry Lewis


On May 9, UNLV’s Barrick Museum’s doors will open on the first public exhibition in the United States of more than 200 images captured by comedian Jerry Lewis from the 1950s through 1970s.

Jerry Lewis: Painted Pictures shares a tiny portion of the legendary Las Vegan’s extensive body of work. His lyrically abstract, richly colored photos pulsate with a proprietary brand of gestural expressionism that Lewis developed through seven decades of experimenting with the movement of color. His unique style—Lewis calls it “painting pictures”—combines highly kinetic shooting techniques with technical processing treatments.

“As long as there is light and color, I can create. I saw in the camera what I wanted,” says Lewis, who is never far from an array of loaded film cameras. “The still pictures were there, and then I gave them a degree of action. I consider myself a person who goes along with what my creative process tells me to do.”

Lewis isn’t shy when sharing another point of view—his general disdain for digital cameras. “Everybody on the planet has a camera now, and it’s minimized what photography is. Your phone camera is a wonderful advancement, but don’t try to get romantic with it because you can’t bring emotion to that. It’s too quick, it’s too brief, it’s devoid of passion. I could sit them all down now and say, ‘Listen, you’re not getting the loveliness of photography. I can do anything I want with my cameras, and you can’t.’ But you can’t tell that to people who are having such a good time.”


Credit longtime friend and neighbor Michael McGraw for urging Lewis to show the images. Lewis recalls him saying, “‘You have got to do something with these!’ And I said, ‘But I already did! I had a marvelous time creating them!’ But if people enjoy looking at them, that’s fine. I already had my fun.”

With a green light, McGraw and curator Michele C. Quinn pulled images from Lewis’ warehouse. Then Quinn enlisted UNLV students to document and record the hundreds of photos in order to narrow the list down to 200.

The subject that eluded Lewis the longest is also included in this exhibition. “Lightning. I finally got it in Mexico City. Lightning says, ‘Here I am, now I’m gone.’ Time, energy and space—all together in the same microcosm, and if you’re not there at the right time—it’s gone! I set up three cameras, all on timers, and I sat in a suite during a storm. I [could] hear the rumbling, so I knew it was coming. I can’t shoot thunder, but I can shoot what it becomes. And I got that picture! I spent three days with Technicolor in Mexico City working on the processing.”

Info Box

Jerry Lewis: Painted Pictures through Aug. 16, UNLV Barrick Museum, 4505 S. Maryland Pkwy. The art show runs concurrent with the Jerry Lewis Film Festival, a free screening from Lewis’ filmography, with a new movie every week at 6 p.m. Thursday starting May 15, 702-895-3381; UNLV.edu/BarrickMuseum.