TIME architecture & design

Portrait of a Mathematician and His Three-Dimensional Chessboard

LIFE photographer Yale Joel recalls how he made a memorable portrait of a Hungarian mathematician who designed a three-dimensional chessboard.

An Army combat photographer during World War II, Yale Joel joined the staff at LIFE in 1947, where he made a name for himself as the guy whose great strength was the impossible or tricky shot using unusual (and often self-invented) equipment. In a 1993 interview with John Loengard, the Bronx-born technical wizard explained how the memorable portrait above came about:

I found a small item in the New York Times about a Hungarian, Dr. Ervand Kogbetliantz. He had designed a three-dimensional chessboard and was looking for someone to play with him. I called him up and invited him to come down to the LIFE studio. . . . I spent the morning shooting pictures of him, using heavy-duty strobes to get enough light so that I could get a close-up of the chessmen in the foreground and the doctor in the rear.

[In a 1973 article on chess innovations, TIME magazine referred to Dr. Kogbetliantz as “Russian-born,” while Wikipedia locates his birthplace in Armenia.—Ed.]

Asked if Kogbetliantz’s game, played on an eight-tiered board with 64 pieces to a side, really worked, Joel replied:

It only worked for Dr. Kogbetliantz because he could never find anyone to play with him. He had a very astute mind mathematically. He looked at these strobe units as I kept drawing them closer to his ears, and he finally came up with a mathematical computation. He announced as I made the last adjustments, “If you bring those lights any closer than they are now, you’re going to blow my brains out.”

[Buy the book, LIFE Photographers: What They Saw (Bulfinch Press, 1998)]

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