Monday, 7 October 2013


This month's Photography Great is widely regarded the having been been the finest portraitists of the 20th Century.

In an age when the traditional painted portrait had almost disappeared from view it could be said that Karsh stepped in and filled the gaps.

Karsh-Self-PortraitThink of many of the iconic figures of the last century and the image that endures of them are usually photographs, and more often than not, by Karsh.  Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, George Bernard Shaw, Jack Kennedy, Fidel Castro and General Eisenhower were just some of the luminaries who sat before his 8 X 10 bellows Calumet.

As one journalist said of his work, "when the famous start thinking of immortality, they call for Karsh of Ottawa".  His 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill, taken just after he had addressed the Canadian House of Commons is said to be the most reproduced portrait in history.
Karsh portrait of Winston Chruchill
Karsh's portraits often give the impression of being the result of elaborate planning and staging, such is their intensity and poise, however in the case of that Churchill portrait he was allocated just minutes to take his picture and a glowering war time Prime Minister who was in no mood to be snapped at all. The great leader's mood drew even more petulant when Karsh took away his cigar, resulting in Churchill taking a belligerent stance, his hand on his hip. As Karsh would later recall, 'two niggardly minutes in which I must try to put on film a man who had already filled the world with his fame and me with dread'.

Whatever the circumstances, Karsh had caught, part by accident and part intuition, the indomitable spirit of Britain at war,  evinced in Churchill's jowly features, every bit the celebrated British bulldog.

That portrait made Karsh's reputation and his studio in Ottawa become an automatic stopping point for all notables visiting the city until such a time as he  was being flown all over the world for portrait commissions such was the demand for his work.
Karsh portrait of  General Eisenhower

The secret of the success of this Armenian emigre lay in two respects. Firstly, his technical abilities as a studio photographer were honed to perfection. His placing of lights around his subjects was very specific and illuminated only those aspects of the scene that were necessary. In many of his works the light can be seen falling just on the face and the hands while all the rest disappears into the shadows.  This approach created not only a strong and vivd sense of depth , but also an intense focus on the subject.  Secondly, there was his guile as a collector of souls. It was something he often remarked on himself. 'Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can."

However, there was a more complex dimension to this artist's work.  He was so much more than a lucky voyeur but a personality with intuitive people skills whose approach and company the great and the good seemed to feel at ease with.  That was when his sitters would relax and show their private faces, putting their public masks to one side.

So, for example, we see Ernest Hemingway, the Nobel prize-winning writer and journalist,  almost childlike while George Bernard Shaw twinkles from the shadows.  Then there's the astonishing dome head of the composer, Sibelius, his eyes shut in intense concentration. Or the soft gaze of an elderly grandpa figure, cosy in thick, warm jumper who also happens to be Albert Einstein.

As Karsh would remark in an interview looking back on his work (he became as famous as those he photographed),  "... as to the soul-taking by the photographer, I don't feel I take away, but rather that sitter and I give to each other'.
Karsh's pictures now adorn the worlds finest photography collections and his name stands as an established synonym for the art of portraiture.
In order of appearance, Karsh's subjects in this feature are:  Yousuf Karsh (self portrait), Winston Churchill, General Dwight Eisenhower, George Bernard Shaw, Peter Lorre, Lawrence Olivier, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Jean Sibelius, Fidel Castro, Andy Warhol & Muhammed Ali.

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