Many wonderful books have been published about the iconic portraits of famed Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh. The latest is this small-format softcover, thoughtfully compiled by David Travis, former curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago. Travis’s thorough, well-written introduction precedes 68 plates, each accompanied by editorial notes and never-before-published commentary taken from recordings made by Karsh and his former studio assistant, Jerry Fielder. Travis’s expertise helps contextualize each portrait, though on occasion he unnecessarily defends Karsh against accusations of hero-worship and flattery vis à vis his celebrity subjects.
Travis discusses the act of looking, and emphasizes Karsh’s exquisite lighting and uniquely sensitive character, but what is particularly striking is how quaint the photographer’s studied portraits seem in contrast to the present day’s invasive celebrity culture. Karsh’s formal studio setting, his reverence for his subjects, and the highly controlled images he created seem almost impossible to imagine today.
As a young man in 1925, Karsh arrived from exile in Syria to live with his uncle in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Travis uses Karsh’s own words to describe the excitement of his new home; he was intoxicated by the snow, the light, and the joy in the eyes of locals. One wonders if this experience catalyzed the photographer’s intense desire to “see more” in people – arguably the quality that would make his portraits so intriguing.
The book is laid out well, and Travis is smart to have interspersed the famous faces (Hemingway, Audrey Hepburn, Churchill) with less well-known subjects, including commissions for the Ford Motor Company and Maclean’s. There is one moving 1945 portrait for which U.S. General George Marshall put forward as a subject his trusted aide, James McIntosh, a black man.
This book helps underscore what a true artist Karsh was. In the technical notes, Jerry Fielder recalls that for the portraitist, the heart and mind were the true lens of the camera. After setting up, Karsh would engage his subject, shutter release in hand. He would then wait, squeezing the bulb only when he felt he had captured a moment of truth.