What Art Is Online


Yousuf Karsh--Portrait Photographer par Excellence

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

The work of the late Yousuf Karsh, the Armenian-born Canadian photographer famed for his portraits of renowned figures of the twentieth century, offers considerable insight into both the similarities and the differences between photography and painting. As noted in his obituary in the New York Times (15 July 2002), Karsh

was a master of the formally posed, carefully lighted studio portrait. Working with an 8-by-10 view camera and a battery of artificial lights (he was said to carry 350 pound of equipment on his trips abroad) he aimed, in his own words, "to stir the emotions of the viewer" and to "lay bare the soul" of his sitter.
He characteristically achieved a heroic monumentality in which the sitter's face, grave, thoughtful and impressive, emerged from a dark, featureless background with an almost superhuman grandeur.

In those respects, Karsh was very much like a great portrait painter, selectively composing his image, the sitter's pose, and the lighting effects to focus upon what he deemed to be most revealing of the sitter's character and personality. And what most distinguishes his work from that of lesser portrait photographers is not merely his technical skill but his powers of discernment, his sensitivity to the nuances of character that can be inscribed on the human face and in pose and gesture. In this, too, he resembled the best portrait painters.

But to suggest--as Peter Pollack did in his Picture History of Photography, quoted in the Times--that Karsh's powerful portraiture "transforms the human face into legend" is to miss the mark. A painter necessarily transforms his sitter's visage, because it is virtually impossible to do otherwise when one constructs an image brushstroke by brushstroke over time; but a photographer--even so accomplished a one as Karsh--merely captures the aspect of that face at a given moment. It is yet another instance of what Cartier-Bresson characterized as finding "the decisive moment."

Karsh's iconic wartime portrait of Winston Churchill--the "turning point" in the photographer's career, according to the Times--is telling here. As the Times notes:

[Karsh] was given only two minutes to take [the picture], during which he is said to have angered the visiting statesman by taking away his cigar before shooting. However, the portrait that resulted, showing the British prime minister glowering at the camera with a bulldoglike tenaciousness, seemed to epitomize the determination of the British to defeat Hitler, and catapulted . . . Karsh into international fame.

Contrast that event with the protracted and arduous process by which the American painter Thomas Eakins, for example, created his famous portraits, which took shape during repeated lengthy sittings--even when the subjects were well known to him (see, for example, The Writing Master, a portrait of the artist's father). The resulting images did not simply reflect what Eakins saw in the character of his individual sitters but also implied something profound about his view of humanity.

November 2002

Yousuf Karsh

What Art Is Online is a supplement to What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand by Louis Torres and Michelle Marder Kamhi (2000). The above article relates to Chapter 9: "Photography." Copyright is held by the authors.

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