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Portrait in Light and Shadow: The Life of Yousuf Karsh

by Maria Tippett

When Maria Tippett, author of a GG-winning bio of Emily Carr, asked Yousuf Karsh for permission to write his biography, he graciously declined. It was only after Karsh’s death in 2002 that his estate decided to co-operate fully. This access to information, along with Tippett’s engaging style, has resulted in Portrait in Light and Shadow, a fascinating recounting of the life of Canada’s most famous portrait photographer.

Karsh is perhaps best remembered for his 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill; Karsh’s impertinence in removing the cigar from Churchill’s mouth ultimately contributed to what became the most famous photograph of the wartime leader. Tippett takes us beyond the picture to discuss what happened before and after the session, including the darkroom magic that turned an ordinary photo into a symbol of British strength and resolve.

Tippett’s book explores just about every aspect of Karsh’s life, from his childhood in Turkey to his struggle to stay relevant in a world no longer interested in images of great men. She focuses on the importance of his partnership with his first wife, Solange Gauthier, who was key to Karsh’s personal and professional success. The flow of the story is excellent, even when describing photographic techniques, and the book is well organized, with a list of photos, an index, and key photographs placed strategically within the text.

The book does disappoint toward the end: perhaps because Karsh’s second wife, Estrellita, is still alive, Tippett hesitates to fully explore that marriage. The matter-of-fact description of their courtship leads the reader to speculate that this was a match of convenience. (He needed a new business manager; she was fascinated by his work.) The failure to explore this question stands in contrast to the book’s earlier depth of description – ­­we feel the lack of analysis keenly because the rest of the book is so rich.

Despite this minor flaw, Tippett displays remarkable insight into human nature and paints a picture as vivid as those created by Karsh himself. And while critics in later years questioned his ability to adapt to new styles of photography, even the briefest glance through the body of work discussed in Portrait in Light and Shadow leaves no doubt that an account of his story is long overdue.