Joan Crawford © Yousuf Karsh
Tis’ the season for the photographic portraits shown at museums and embassies in DC. This week I’ll look at three exhibitions starting off with Master Yousuf Karsh at the Canadian Embassy (Mon-Fri. 9 A.M. to 5 P.M. till DEC. 18 501 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Free! (202) 682-1740) Yousuf or Josuf (his given Armenian name was Hovsep) Karsh was born in Mardin, a city in the eastern Ottoman Empire (present Turkey). He grew up during the Armenian Genocide where he wrote, “I saw relatives massacred; my sister died of starvation as we were driven from village to village.”
Karsh emigrated to Canada where he worked in his uncle’s photo studio before pursuing other opportunities in the States and returning to Canada where he became well-known for portraits of famous people, and was sometimes criticized for being overly-respectful of them. A video accompanies exhibit (it runs 55 minutes so I didn’t catch the whole thing, but I would like to rent it, it had some excellent points made in it, some of which I will reference below. Of his reverence for his subjects, his wife Pauline made this telling statement: “He accepted people, not tolerated them, but accepted them. So his portrait sessions were collaborations.” Perhaps, his experience with the Armenian genocide and his life as a refugee made him unwilling to judge, understandable, and perhaps the healthiest response to the early tragedies that informed him.
The exhibit at the Canadian Embassy comprises 28 randomly associated celebrity portraits each exquisitely printed, I believe all are silver gelatin, 11 x14″ish, no information accompanies the brief caption info, so I am working off memory. The framing is consistent and unobtrusive, natural pine, with cream mats, most importantly it does not detract, but gives the idea that this was well thought-0ut. While as a whole, the collection is rather motley thematically, movie stars, politicians, artists, architects, the random Native American, and at times a bit repetitive and uninspiring, there are a few that for me reveal the greatness of Karsh, and indeed are worth seeing for the prints alone, if not for the eternal suck of the celebrity portrait, of which few seem immune from its siren call. Karsh at his most bold exploits not the light but the shadow. His use of the key light to highlight I have seldom noted in much use of late (though I am the last person to be scouring the portraits of all the celebrity glossies, etc – as sometimes I even read things w/o illustrations [the horror]), but its effect is quite powerful, and I would certainly like to employ it in some of my work as it is quite flattering to he of the, er, wider girth, as well of he who ain’t.
Some interesting points made in the film, not too complicated of thoughts but pertinent all the same:
From Sophia Lauren’s son who sat with his mother for Karsh:
“The more time you spend, the more you get invested in the process. You are going to care more about something you spent five hours doing than something you spent five minutes. . . . I have a lot of photographs taken of me with my mother. Karsh’s is the only one I have hanging on my wall.” (I will be sure to bring this point up in my next ten minute executive/ceo/lawyer portrait – “I just want you to be fully invested in this process.” ; ) )
from a curator whose name I couldn’t catch:
“With digital images it is quite possible we won’t be able to access the majority of images in the future due to technological changes and so few prints being made from them. We don’t know how long a website will stay up.” Don’t tell flicker!
And from Annie Leibovitz who held a session photographing Karsh in which she said the old master seemed somewhat disappointed as if she hadn’t done her homework:
“He pretty much took over the shoot. He didn’t say too much. But he basically gave me all of his poses.”
One image which I felt weakened the entire show a bit, and perhaps was not best served by having Karsh photograph it was this image of a native Canadian:
It just reminded me of photographs of the winner of the quilting contest or what-have-you. And perhaps this is other-ing on my part, but she seemed like such an organic person that I would have liked to see the portrait executed in a less studio style, perhaps in a way by one of the fellas I am going to talk about later in the week, Robert Bergman, who is showing at the National Gallery of Art, but I jump ahead. Anyway, for me this was the weakest image, and reminds me of how we have to keep those weak images out of or books and shows and work.
This was an incredible print, the tone, luminosity, no dreaded digital noise in the shadows. Viva the silver gelatin!
This for me is the best kind of celebrity portrait, it tells something about the subject, employing a tool of the subjects trade, but in an unexpected and graphic way . Yousuf Karsh, check it out for yourself it’s gone in mid-December, so nows your chance!