Text from Janet Yates, in "Yousuf Karsh: Heroes of Light and Shadow"
Between Admiration and Analysis:
The photographs of Yousuf Karsh are to be admired for their mastery of the art, their place in history, and their ability to touch the public imagination. Through his photographic skill, Karsh has made accessible to his public strong images of the great and famous, photographed during his long career of more than half a century. There is a sense of truth inherent in these images that is difficult to articulate; it is the inexplicable need we all have to aspire to something greater.
The Many Faces of Yousuf Karsh
An analysis of both his famous and his more obscure photographs reveals the many faces of Yousuf Karsh. His work developed in the context of a particular time and place a context that shaped his work and the direction it took. By revisiting the circumstances in which he created his art, we can find new pathways to the interpretation of his oeuvre. In this essay, I have aimed to show how Karsh's fame grew and developed in North America and Europe; the other essayists in this volume offer diverse methodological approaches to the photographer and his work.
The Heroic Portrait
The type of portrait Karsh has favored and the one that affects us most is the image of the heroic persona. The strength of this type of image in his photographs occupies an important place in the public imagination - a confirmation of Roland Barthes' observation that "the great portrait photographers are great mythologists." Karsh has captured a host of icons that can be matched with stories and symbols deriving from many traditions.
The hero is a character or person admired for great deeds and noble qualities. The Greek root word hero suitably applies to figures of ancient story and myth like Hercules, Ulysses, Achilles, and the gods of Mount Olympus. Yet in modern usage, the word has lost its original tragic aspect and instead has come to imply moral greatness, ability, and action in the face of opposition. Even one who is self driven and dedicated to the good, who displays spiritual grandeur, and who possesses life promoting values needs knowledge to reach these lofty goals. Using this expanded definition, the range of heroes that Karsh has captured for the public becomes even clearer.
Karsh's subjects understood that going before his lens would make them, in one sense, immortal through the message in the iconography and through its distribution. The final work would also communicate their social standing to a broader audience. Undoubtedly recognizing the importance of his photographic experience with Karsh, the Canadian born newspaper baron Lord Beaverbrook exclaimed, "Karsh - you have immortalized me." It is not surprising, then, that sitters did not object if Karsh made their photographs public. The effect has been comparable to the Roman practice of situating sculptures of prominent citizens in public squares.
Placing all of his sitters himself, Karsh worked with them in order to find "that residuum of greatness before one's camera, [that] one must recognize in a flash." "There is a brief moment," he believed, "when all there is in a man's mind and soul and spirit may be reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record. This is the elusive 'moment of truth.'" In affirming this code of honor to his sitters, he wrote, "I am satisfied that no purpose would be served if I were consciously to seek to convert what would be a portrait of greatness into a moment of weakness. Such moments are not worthy of recording." It was clear that the sitter could count on his collaboration to create the most admirable public persona.
Karsh openly admitted that he was a hero worshipper; his responsiveness to the heroic persona permeated his manner and style, and consequently his photographs. It has been theorized that Karsh used "the horrors of his early experiences [of the Armenian massacres] not as a source of bitterness, but rather to fuel his lifelong interest in the truly great, in those who have power and who wield it not for harm, but for good." During his formative years, Karsh's adopted home, Canada, reinforced values of moral absolutes and predetermined gender representation imbedded in the colonial constructs of the British Empire. And during his own career, he was part of a society that believed in a better world to come through the excellence of scientific discovery and economic progress. "The impulse behind much of Karsh's work," one writer has said, "is, in a sense, philosophical, and stems from a belief in the dignity, goodness, and genius of human beings."
To convey the identity of the sitter and their place in the realm of greatness, Karsh used a language of imagery. Hand gestures, facial movements, body language, and direction of gaze clearly and coherently deliver the message about what type of hero is being portrayed. Through lighting and its effects, Karsh accentuates the story being told, and props support the image and contribute to making it understandable. These clues make Karsh's photographs so readable that both European and North American audiences understand their iconography, and his works have lent themselves to reproduction on postage stamps and currency, in magazine illustrations and specialty publications, and in other mass media.
Karsh created a convincing pantheon of heroes who are models of greatness. Most of us respond to the heroic image as something we can look up to. We can experience a closeness to them, since somehow "photography makes us feel that the world is more available than it really is." At some level, there is the hidden fear that these heroes could be fallible, yet Karsh makes them believable, including those who better the world by their mastery in the arts and who figure among humanity's great personalities.
Ruth Draper, the international monologuist who moved her audiences to laughter and tears, used no scenery or props - only an occasional shawl or other wrap. Karsh's photograph of her speaks of Greek heroism as implied by her garment and heightened by a distant, insightful gaze that situates her in the birthplace of drama - both comedy and tragedy. This construction has its beginnings in seventeenth and eighteenth century classical portraiture works like those of Van Dyck and Reynolds. Equally dedicated to the realm of mystical inspiration is the portrait of Jean Sibelius, eyes shut and fist clenched to his heart. By closing the windows to his soul, now accessible only to him, he becomes lost in the intense symphony of his mind. The nuances and gestures of Karsh's portraits accrue to a sum greater than the parts we can easily comprehend. We know, indeed, that the person portrayed belongs to an exalted circle of heroes...
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