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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Yousuf Karsh

Karsh - GBShaw1943

Yousuf Karsh was a master portrait photographer. One of the old school of portraitists who created classically styled portraits that lionized the subject. His portraits were deliberately dramatic, rich in light and shadow, respectful of the subject, carefully crafted to reveal the subject’s authority and power.

We don’t see much of that any more. It’s an outdated mode of photography and an archaic style of portraiture. There are cultural reasons for that, of course. But it’s impossible to look at a Karsh portrait and not appreciate the craftsmanship.

Karsh was born in 1908 in Armenia. When he was 14 years old, his parents emigrated to the United States, fleeing their homeland to escape persecution. Two years later, in1924, Karsh moved to Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada to live with his uncle George Nakash, a photographer. He showed great promise in photography (although he wanted to become a physician) and was eventually sent to Boston to study under John H. Garo, an eminent portrait photographer of that era. Karsh returned to Canada and in 1932 he opened his own studio in Ottawa.

During that period, while attending the Ottawa Little Theatre, Karsh encountered the technology that was to make him a great portrait photographer: incandescent theatrical lighting (his training had been in the use of available light). He quickly became a master at using theatrical lights to create spectacular and stirring portraits. Those portraits drew in some powerful clients, including Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King. Using P.M. King as a reference, Karsh soon began to photograph many visiting dignitaries.

Karsh - Picasso1954

In1941 Winston Churchill came to Ottawa. Karsh was given the opportunity to photograph the great man…but it was a small opportunity; he was granted only two minutes, a brief pause between the time Churchill was in the House of Commons chamber and when he was scheduled for a nearby meeting. The resulting photograph became perhaps the most famous portrait of Winston Churchill.

Karsh’s career was made. He went on to photograph all the most famous and most important people of his era. Politicians, artists, composers, scientists, philosophers, writers…they all sat for Karsh. An article on Karsh in London’s Sunday Times stated "when the famous start thinking of immortality, they call for Karsh of Ottawa."

Karsh once said "My chief joy is to photograph the great in heart, in mind, and in spirit, whether they be famous or humble." The humble, however, rarely found their way in front of Karsh’s camera. For the most part, he photographed the famous.

He preferred large format cameras, but apparently was not locked into any single format. He used 8×10, 6×7,6×6, and 4×5 cameras. The camera was, it appeared, merely the recording device. It was the lighting that made Karsh Karsh. He frequently traveled with around 350 pounds of lighting equipment. One of his favorite techniques was to light the subject’s hands separately from the face.

Karsh - GOKeefe1956

It was once said of Karsh that he "transforms the human face into legend." His use of heroic lighting and formal posing, to the modern eye, appears more about depicting the public persona of the subject rather than revealing anything about the subject as a person. The portraits are flattering in that they portray power. Karsh said, "If there is a single quality that is shared by all great men, it is vanity. But I mean by ‘vanity’ only that they appreciate their own worth. Without this kind of vanity they would not be great."

Despite his tendency to exalt and glorify his subjects through dramatic lighting, Karsh continued to demonstrate an ability to use softer lighting and available light when it was appropriate to the subject.

One must consider Karsh’s background when judging his portraiture. His family arrived in North America destitute, fleeing religious persecution; the entire world would soon be entering a second global war. It was a period in which the fate of the world seemed to rest in the hands of great people…great leaders, great scientists, great politicians. It’s not so surprising that somebody who had lived Karsh’s life would be given to hero worship.

In one of several books he published, Karsh wrote: "the heart and the mind are the true lens of the camera." I think it can truly be said that his portraits reflect the heart and mind of Yousuf Karsh.