Sunday, April 10, 2011

Reflection on Photographer Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf Karsh lived from December 23, 1908 until July 13th, 2002 and was originally from modern day Turkey. However, this was the time of the Armenian Genocide and his family fled to Syria to escape. During his youth Karsh witnessed many horrors, including the starvation of his sister. His parents sent him to live with his uncle in Quebec, who was a photographer. Noticing a talent in Yousuf, he arranged for an apprenticeship with renown John Garo in Boston. This opportunity, and his past experiences in my opinion, were responsible for his great success, he was motivated by human nature and had a very real connections with his subjects.

The defining moment I believe for Karsh was his move to Ottawa, where after being noticed by Prime Minister MacKenzie King, he began photography dignitaries and celebrities. The most renown, and actually most reproduced portrait in history, of Winston Churchill put him in the history books. He managed to capture Winston Churchill, without his cigar, in a mere two minutes he was allotted by the surely man after his speech. This image portrayed Churchill and his leadership in WW11, to be infallible and strong, encompassing the man's character and soul in a single shot. In addition to the famous portrait, Karsh achieved much acclaim, including being made an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967, an Companion in 1990, and ranking 51st of the top 100 " most notable people of the century" in 2000 by the International Who's Who.

Yousuf Karsh excelled at lighting and was an integral part of his productions. He would often light the subjects face and hands separately to add emphasis. He shot in black and white, using for the majority of his career a "8x10 bellows Calumet(1997.0319). Seeking to capture the essences of his subjects, he focused on the brief glimpses of the unveiled, exposed true self of his subject. He was known for his immortalizing abilities and was much sought after by famous people. Among the many he photographed were Muhammed Ali, Fidel Castro, Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol and Pope John Paul II, to name a few. His complete collection is kept at the Library Archives Canada, but his work is appreciated around the world from the National Portrait Gallery in Australia to New York's Museum of Modern Art. His equipment was donated to the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.

A photographer by the name of Paul Couvrette was a friend to Yousuf Karsh and his brother, and it was Karsh who saw the potential in him. Which is why he gave many of his clients in Ottawa to him. Couvrette like Karsh understood the importance of connecting with their subjects on a personal level. He carried this through every aspect of his photography, even the staff at his studio were extensively interviewed to ensure they would maintain the atmosphere and professionalism that brought patrons back over 20 years. That loyalty came from his care for his subjects, and his attention to their level of comfort, so that he would have opportunity to capture a glimpse behind the mask we all hide behind. Like the image below of a man being photographed for a business headshot. Couvrette was able to capture his "essence" like Karsh, no matter what the intended purpose of the image. Even at first glance, the viewer can easily identify with the subject. By his expression, his intelligence, decisive demeanour and hint of sense of humour are obvious. I believe by being mentored by Karsh, he gained the insight and skills to accentuate the subjects best qualities. Like Karsh, Avedon tried to incite reactions from his subjects, in the case of "The Roaring Lion" Karsh's unintentional effect of removing Winston Churchill's cigar, Avedon would purposely ask unsettling questions to evoke emotion.
Paul Couvrette
Like Karsh, Tracy Martin focuses on capturing her subjects in a positive light, without compromising the reality of the character. She states in her biography on her website that one of her greatest influences is Yousuf Karsh. I believe this is because of their similar approach and style. She sees beyond the subject in front of her, but rather focuses on their personality and workings of their mind. By drawing this out, she is able to tell their story in a single image. The importance of setting the proper lighting is another similarity, like in the image below of a women standing in rapture. The women is opening herself up to the light, exulting in it's freedom and strength, expertly Martin has connected the light to the subject and the emotion of the subject to the viewer.
Tracy Martin

Richard Avedon was chief photographer of Harper's Bizarre, and later Vogue, and was a defining figure in fashion and portraiture in America. Unlike the fashion photographers of that time, and very much like Karsh, he felt the need to connect with the models. Instead of photographing "mannequins" he brought the models to life, inspiring them to not only wear the product, but really showcase it through emotion and motion. "Avedon was always interested in how portraiture captures the personality and soul of the subject"(tp:// Like Karsh, Avedon tried to incite reactions from his subjects, in the case of "The Roaring Lion" Karsh's unintentional effect of removing Winston Churchill's cigar, Avedon would purposely ask unsettling questions to evoke emotion.
However, later Avedon was drawn to more "common" subjects like miners and factory workers. Considering the were two of the greatest photographers of that time, perhaps Avedon sought to go the opposite route of Karsh's predominately prestigious and renown clientele. Therefore, instead of immortalizing the subject, he showed his subjects in their true, lowly nature. His capture of Marilyn Monroe is a perfect example. While Yousuf Karsh, would likely seek to capture her in all her beauty and glamour, Avedon sought to take another approach. His shot was of the rarely seen side, the vulnerable, humbler, human side of her.

Gary Palmira has been involved in not only photography but all manners of broadcasting, movie production etc. But, he understood that in whichever form of art, the human character and personality brings it to life. He has set up a webpage with numerous quotes to accompany some of his photography, to express himself through the words of others. Not coincidently is the most similar image to Karsh's photography, accompanied by a quote by Karsh himself, "There is a brief moment when all there is in a man's mind, soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his attitude. This is the moment to record"(Yousuf Karsh). The double capture below, emphasizes this concept expertly, seeing into both the older man and child's souls.

George DeLouche loves taking portraits, especially in black and white, like Karsh. He was inspired by Karsh's work, by learning of human emotion and the skill of capturing it. He studied Karsh's photography more closely than others as they shared a mutual affection for the " beauty and dignity of people"(George DeLouche). Which he executes expertly with his simple, classical style. They also have a similar approach to conceptualization and post production, knowing the story they want to tell with the image and utilizing lighting techniques to achieve this. For example the image below, the light focuses on the subjects gaze, accentuating his eyes while diminishing other features in shadow as to not distract from the intended purpose, the story his eyes give.

All in all, I believe Yousuf Karsh influenced many photographers directly or indirectly through his style of photography. Taking the art of portraiture from "still-life", hollow images, to energized personal photographs that interact with the viewer. He set the bar for future photographers to not only capture an aesthetically pleasing image but one with emotion and a concept attached.


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