Yousuf Karsh at B+H

Beetles + Huxley have an exhibition of 23 portraits by Yousuf Karsh taken between 1941 and 1988, mostly in the 1940s and 50s. All are darkroom prints made by Karsh himself or under his direct supervision. The sitters are statesmen, artists and film stars.

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It seems appropriate to use the old-fashioned word ‘sitters’ in this context rather than ‘models’ or ‘subjects’  because, with two exceptions (WH Auden and Georgia O’Keefe), these are studio portraits, posed and with very considered lighting.

To get a sour note out of the way quickly, there were two images that I didn’t like (Martha Graham’s pose seems awkward and the fill light on JFK’s profile seems flat), but a 21:2 ratio of gems to ‘others’ is pretty damn good.

Because, I am currently working on the ‘ex nihilo’ section of part 4, I spent some time studying the lighting and making notes of how I thought Karsh had lit each one. I am almost certainly wrong in most cases (the ‘roaring lion’ portrait of Churchill looks like two lights and  a reflector, but the catalogue notes tell us that Karsh used six floods, two spots and a background light) but I will use a few of my imagined set-ups in exercise 4.4.

This is the classic ‘roaring lion’ portrait of Churchill after addressing the Canadian Parliament in 1941. The story of the scowl is oft-repeated’; given only a few minutes, Karsh snatched away Churchill’s cigar and photographed the reaction – producing one of the most iconic images of the man (and incidentally, one of the most widely-reproduced photographic portraits in history) and launched his own career. Less well-known is that Churchill was sufficiently amused by the incident to allow another photograph to be taken, this time smiling.

Unfortunately, B+H do not show this one as I would love to see them side-by-side. I must say that I find the smiling image rather creepy and I need to analyse my own reaction. I think it must be that the ‘roaring lion’ picture is so iconic, and has fixed the historical image of Churchill so firmly that the variation comes as a shock.

Many of the male images share the classic ‘Karsh lighting’, rim-lit  with front fill. Castro and Hemingway are fairly symmetrical, and it is the asymmetric lighting on Bogart and Cousteau that I found most interesting. The Bogart image also shows Karsh’s attention to the sitters’ hands (see also Churchill above, or Einstein, GB Shaw, or Joan Miro)

The ‘young romantic’ female subjects get a softer-lit treatment (but sharp focus) which seems to be based around a large front fill source with some accent lighting. Older female subjects with a few ‘character lines’ get the male lighting treatment.

Many of these images are familiar from books or online sources, and Karsh is known as a master of lighting. However, it is only when we view the prints in the flesh that we discover that he was a master craftsman in the darkroom as well. The prints are superb, especially the luminous highlights.

Overall an enjoyable and informative exhibition, and the catalogue is the best £10 that I have spent on a photography book.

Reference

Beetles+Huxley (2016) Yousuf Karsh London: Beetles+Huxley

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