‘Karsh, A Fifty Year Retrospective‘ © 1988 is part a who’s who in portraits of movers and shakers and part autobiography, all courtesy of Yousuf Karsh.
Yousuf Karsh is the photographer whose portraits etched in our minds the character of the mid 20th century’s iconic personalities.
Is there a photo stuck in your mind from this period that screams character, like Winston Churchill, Jacques Cousteau, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein?
If yes, there is an excellent chance that the portrait was taken by Karsh.
Karsh was born in 1908 in Armenia. A boy during the turmoil of World War I, Karsh lived through, though not all of his family survived the atrocities. Thankfully, by 16 he had managed his way to safe refuge in Ottawa, Canada.
It was 1941 in Canada where Karsh first photographed the soon to be iconic portrait of Winston Churchill.
Before this succeed with Churchill, Karsh shares how his first sitting with the rich and famous family members of a friend resulted in a bit of fumbling and ended rather poorly.
Luckily for him, the same subjects gave him a second, more successful opportunity for a sitting.
These beginnings lead eventually to the opportunity with Churchill.
Success with Churchill flowed rather more quickly into work with the famous and powerful movers and shakers among the Allies during World War II.
After the war and decades thereafter, for people of character, whether rich, powerful or famous, a portrait by Karsh was a hallmark symbol of passage.
Aside from just the fact that success breeds success, Karsh’s images have a way of dripping with character. His lighting is often hard, showing textures, lines, tones … character.
His portrait lighting style is for today perhaps appropriate only to those subjects confident in their character. That is, today most subjects wish to appear young. Soft lighting and more youthful images have a way of masking a degree of our characters.
The light Karsh used is much harsher than is today’s vogue, and so is much more textured. Karsh’s light is a light full of character. Character often shows a certain patina of age. Age is a kind of dirty word today. Today, we often use flat lighting or photoshop to reduce the patina of age.
While beauty per se is not Karsh’s genre, one of the best examples of beauty by Karsh is in ‘Karsh, A Fifty Year Retrospective.’ The photo in black and white of Karsh’s first wife Solange, where she is dancing under a willow tree and is wearing a gown transparent enough to be considered a nude, demonstrates keenly his ability to portray beauty.
The 1956 shots in the actor and actress section of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn also demonstrate Karsh’s ability to well capture beauty when beauty was the character of his subject.
Only by the 1980’s had the ability “to print muted subtle and muted tones which, especially in portraiture, are necessary to capture the expressive nuances of the human face.”
‘Karsh, A Fifty Year Retrospective‘ is one of the few sources of Karsh’s relatively rare color images. Even here, most images are black and whites. And, we know many of these images.
Frankly, I much prefer Karsh’s work in black and white work to his color.
The lighting and character of Karsh’s images are each studies in character and light.
What is also interesting is that Karsh shares a bit about each of the subjects of his portraits.
Karsh was not a production shooter. In general he would take hours or days with each subject. Getting to know the subject personally and to know their character, then deliberately capturing this character on film.
‘Karsh, A Fifty Year Retrospective‘ is an inexpensive library edition. If you are a history fan, are drawn to character studies or classical lighting schemes or just like portraiture, this could be a nice addition to your photo book collection.