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.


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.


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


Exercise 2.4 – Mugshot

This image was shot with an Olympus E-30 and 50-150mm (100-300mm equivalent) f/2.8-3.5 telephoto zoom lens. Settings, ISO100, 50mm (100mm equivalent) focal length, aperture-priority automatic at f/2.8. Shutter speed was 1/50 second. Minor tweaking in Lightroom, including a -13 post-crop vignette.

The eyes are near the horizontal centre-line. The left eye is almost dead-centre and our first point of focus. The right eye is somewhere near the third-line. Mostly, the eye is held by the model’s gaze; the out-of-focus background directs us back to the in-focus face and the stray wisps of hair accentuate the difference between subject and bokeh.

Julia Margaret Cameron at MediaSpace

MediaSpace at the Science Museum (Exhibition Road, London SW7) is currently showing an exhibition of the work of Victorian portraitist Julia Margaret Cameron. The majority of the exhibits are original albumen prints from wet-collodion plates, although there a few modern prints.


Apart from a few images from her final years at the family coffee plantations in Ceylon, the images fall into two main categories: head-shot portraits and tableaux of religious or poetic scenes. The head-shots, in particular, were unusual at a time when portraits were typically full-body. Portrait subjects included Thomas Carlyle, William Herschel and Alfred Tennyson (Tennyson described his favourite portrait as “the dirty monk).

It has to be said that Cameron’s technique was not perfect; all but one or two of the photographs are unsharp and many exhibit motion blur. The introductory text acknowledges and excuses this thus, “Her photographs combined an unorthodox technique with a deeply personal vision. Using a lack of sharp focus, they often included scratches and other technical ‘faults’ to harness photography’s expressive power, which became the hallmark of her style despite criticism at the time”. The label next to her first lens (a 12-inch f/6 Petzval without aperture stops – therefore impossible to get the whole of an 11×9″ plate in focus) quotes Cameron herself thus, “… when focussing and coming to something which to my eye was very beautiful I stopped there, instead of screwing on the Lens to the more definite focus which all other Photographers prefer”

Cameron also had an interest in amateur theatre, which shows in the arrangement of the group tableaux and in her use of lighting. The intensity of the images outweighs their technical flaws and she is now regarded as one of the greats of Victorian photography, and highly influential in portraiture.

Richard Avedon at the Gagosian

An exhibition at the Gagosian (24 Britannia St, London WC1X) until 23 April juxtaposes the portrait photography of Richard Avedon with the layered silkscreen prints of his contemporary Andy Warhol. A very minimalistic installation in four galleries, white walls, grey floors, no furniture, nothing to get in the way of the images.

The majority of the Avedon portraits are in his characteristic minimalist style, white backgrounds, fairly hard lighting and very sharp focus giving his subjects nowhere to hide. Large format  film images are mostly printed full-frame including rebate edges.

The consistent look is used to advantage in “The Family” a set of 69 images shot for Rolling Stone in 1976 of the great and powerful in American politics and business at the time. Some went on to greater things (Carter, Reagan) while others provoke a “who’s he?” reaction. Viewed as a whole, grouped on one wall, it is greater than the sum of the parts.

The second gallery is dominated by the collage “Andy Warhol and members of The Factory” (1969) printed 3.1 x 9.5 metres, approximately life size. Mostly clothed figures, some nude, none erotic.

In the same gallery is a double portrait of Francis Bacon (1979) and a very disturbing image of Warhol (1969). This is an image of his torso only, with a leather jacket opened to show his operation scars and sutures following the assassination attempt in 1968.

In a third gallery, we find portraits of Truman Capote juxtaposed with both murderers who ‘starred’ in “In Cold Blood” together with a double-portrait of Samuel Beckett and a full-face portrait of Ezra Pound with his eyes screwed closed – ambiguous whether he is in thought or pain.

The image from this gallery that left the biggest impression was Marilyn Monroe (1957) seen with her gaze slightly averted and looking distinctly vulnerable. The contrast between that view and the brassy look of Warhol’s iconic screen-print is shocking.

Portraits in the final gallery included Janis Joplin (possibly a large-format Polaroid) with a fag on, Louis Armstrong with lots of movement blur (I suspect a 1/5 second exposure or thereabouts), Charles Chaplin and Brigitte Bardot. The Bardot image is very contrasty, reminiscent of a Warhol screen-print.

Altogether, a good introduction to an iconic portraitist.


Video • The Lab: Decoy

A fascinating video, which I encountered originally as Facebook clickbait, then located on the Canon Australia channel of YouTube.

Six photographers each given 10 minutes to photograph the same man, but each given a different background story: self-made millionaire, life-saver, ex-inmate, commercial fisherman, psychic, recovering alcoholic. Six different approaches to the session and six different images resulting.

Final tag: A photograph is shaped more by the person behind the camera than by what is in front of it