The Artist Spotlight for December is Yousuf Karsh (December 23, 1908 - July 13, 2002). I am particularly fond this Yousuf Karsh quote, so I wanted to share it with you as we celebrate him. For me, this quote sums up the difference between TAKING a photograph and MAKING a photograph. Anyone can “take” a photograph, but the alchemy of “making” a photograph is an entirely different skill set that employs art, science, light, creativity, emotion, story ... As I learn more about Karsh, this quote also reflects his personal style and approach to photography. But who was Yousuf Karsh…
Yousuf Karsh may not be a recognizable name to most people, but chances are pretty good that you have seen at least one of his iconic images, even if you are unfamiliar with the artist’s name. Karsh is considered to be one of the most accomplished portrait photographers of the 20th century, and, many might argue, of all time.
Karsh’s career spanned over six decades (1926-1992), and, in 1935, he was appointed the Canadian government’s official portrait photographer. The subjects of his portraits reads like a who’s who list of writers, actors, artists, musicians, scientists, as well as political and military leaders of the time. But, what made all of these portraits stand the test of time is Karsh’s signature style.
Many would automatically attribute the dramatic lighting technique Karsh pioneered as the “special sauce” that set his images apart. But, I think there are really two ingredients to his style. I think the quote we began with supports the theory… the heart being the way he captured his subject in the moment, and the mind being his intentional use of lighting.
I admit, I am smitten with the dramatic lighting. I also admit that I am NOT a portrait fan girl… never have been, but Karsh’s images make me rethink my position. I really find them beautiful and authentic. I also admire that he learned from, and was influenced by, other art forms. (Hooray, Yousuf!! You are my kind of artist!!) In fact, as a result of joining a local theater group, Karsh recognized the potential of how theatrical lighting could lend itself to his photographic lighting technique. I would say, lighting accomplished.
The second component is the way he interacted with his subjects. I have read that he did “homework” on his subjects. He studied them. He observed them. Then he used what he learned about them to put his subjects at ease, converse with them, and in so doing, he was rewarded with authentic, genuine expressions and emotions with an added bonus of an enjoyable experience for the subject. How can that not be the recipe for success?
PORTRAIT OF CHURCHILL
More than 20 of Karsh’s images donned the cover of LIFE magazine, including the iconic 1941 photograph of Winston Churchill. This portrait is probably one of the most recognizable or reproduced images - in no small part due to its appearance on the cover of the May 21, 1945 issue of LIFE magazine. In some ways, the portrait is credited with opening many doors for Karsh … as well it should. Not only is it a beautiful portrait full of symbolism of this time in history, but that expression he captured… Wonder how he got it? There is a video on the Karsh.org website where Karsh tells the story (HERE) , but in summary, Karsh walked over and removed Churchill’s cigar right before triggering the camera shutter. YIKES! I bet you can never look at this portrait again without thinking about that story.
Do you have a favorite Karsh portrait? Do tell. Leave a comment because I would love to know. Maybe you have seen something I haven’t. (HINT: Don’t forget to visit the Pinterest board I created if you want to look at a few images.)