How studying Karsh, the man and the artist, can make us better portrait painters

Yousef Karsh is widely regarded as one of the greatest portrait photographers of the 20th century. In this essay, I discuss five ways in which studying Karsh’s life and photos can impact our own work as portrait painters.

At the peak of his career, Karsh was so famous that being photographed by him was simply “being Karshed“, and he was affectionately referred to as “Karsh of Ottawa”. It was quite an accomplishment for someone from such humble beginnings, who grew up in a war-torn country and emigrated to Canada to escape the Armenian Genocide. But the journey that started as an immigrant with little understanding of the language or customs of his new home to become an iconic figure is full of stories – and photos – that can teach us valuable lessons as photographers. and artists. While there are countless lessons to be learned, here are five that have influenced me and which I hope will inspire you as well.

1. Karsh had specific goals and pursued them vigorously

As a young man, Karsh had the privilege of apprenticed with John Garo, a famous Boston portrait photographer. What was originally supposed to last six months turned into three years, as Garo recognized the talent of his young apprentice, and Karsh recognized that he not only had a lot to learn about photography, but also a lot to absorb in company. de Garo and his esteemed friends, which included many well-known figures in music and art. After the end of daylight (and the ability to create portraits in natural light), Garo’s studio became a speakeasy and unofficial cultural hub, with young Yousef as his bartender. Of those formative years, Karsh recalled, “Even as a young man, I was aware that those glorious afternoons and evenings were my university.”

Early on, and unsurprisingly, Karsh decided he would photograph the greatest figures of his time. When his time with Garo ended, he immediately moved to Ottawa and opened his own photo studio. Karsh said of his audacity, “In Canada’s capital, the hub of global travel, I hoped to have the opportunity to photograph his personalities and many foreign visitors.”

We learn that from the beginning of his career, Karsh had concrete goals as an artist and photographer. Instead of waiting for famous faces to find him, he deliberately and wisely placed himself where he knew he would find growth and opportunities to collaborate with the leading artists, politicians and actors of his time. Karsh knew that no matter how good his art was, no one knew who he was, and his goals forced him to move to fulfill his dream.

2. Karsh learned from his failures

There is a wonderful story about Karsh as a young portrait photographer that can remind us of the importance of failure and how he often teaches us the most valuable lessons. Shortly after moving to Ottawa, Karsh was invited to join the Ottawa Little Theatre, an amateur group that would not only have a profound impact on his understanding of artificial light, but also open an invaluable doorway to his career.

One of the players in this group was the Governor General’s son, and he and Karsh became friends so quickly that the young man convinced his noble parents to sit down for a portrait with Karsh. The shoot was a complete disaster, however, as the young and inexperienced Karsh nervously posed the majestic couple, he “in full military dress with sword and decorations”, and she “elegantly dressed” and “statuesque” in appearance, like Karsh described them. . He was so disturbed by the event that the results were, in his words, “disastrous”.

Yet this profound and potentially crushing failure was turned by Karsh into his first major success. Amazingly, Karsh convinced the lord and lady to sit for him a second time, and the results were so excellent and well received that they were printed in numerous publications across the country.

Although never welcome, the lessons we learn from failure are always far more important than those we learn from success. Consider how Karsh surely replayed every detail of that failed first session in his mind, not only learning many lessons from his mistakes, but effectively ensuring that he would never repeat the same missteps again. Also consider that Karsh didn’t let this rather catastrophic failure cause him to give up, or to consider that he himself, was a failure. He failed, but it wasn’t a failure. In fact, his self-confidence remained so strong that he took the caring (and patient) couple in for a second session, which yielded great results.

3. Karsh was always ready

Karsh’s most famous portrait is the iconic image of Winston Churchill, looking rather disturbed. And although the story of how Karsh created this portrait has achieved legendary status, there are many important details in his account of the event that led to his infamous cigar-taking that we can learn from. a lot about the art of creating a successful portrait. .

In short, Karsh was always ready and left absolutely nothing to chance. He describes the preparation of his portrait of Churchill, saying

I waited in the President’s Chamber where, the night before, I had installed my lights and my camera. But getting the giant to reluctantly walk from his corner to where my lights and camera were set up a short distance away was a feat! I went back to my camera and made sure everything was technically fine.

These lesser-known, but hugely important, parts of history can teach us a lot as photographers. Ask yourself if Karsh hadn’t taken enough time to set up his camera and lights, or if in his haste and nervousness he hadn’t double-checked the settings once Churchill was in place for photography. His preparation and attention to detail ensured that nothing was left to chance. Certainly, his lessons learned from photographing the Governor General were well learned.

Karsh’s work ethic in general also portrays a man who was a perfectionist and did not shy away from the idea of ​​spending countless hours in the studio learning not only how to create portraits with artificial light, but also to use a multitude of printing techniques that he has meticulously developed. through countless hours of experimentation. Karsh was ready.

4. Karsh did his homework on every person he photographed.

Perhaps more than any other portrait photographer of his time, Karsh was able to capture the essence of his subject, allowing the viewer to get a glimpse into his personality and soul. Take for example his image of the cellist Pablo Casals, alone in a large room with his cello, his back to the camera. This image depicts Casal’s dedication to his craft, as well as his legendary dedication to playing his beloved instrument. Or, consider his portrait of Pablo Picasso, where the artist has become part of his work, with a slightly distant expression reminding the viewer of his artistry and greatness as an artist.

Karsh attributes his ability to capture his subjects with such veracity to a process he has called “making [his] homework,” in which he endeavored to learn as much as possible about a person before photographing them. Knowing more about her subject not only provided insight into her unique personality, but also served a practical purpose. Karsh made the act of connecting with his subject much easier, as he arrived armed with information that bridged the gap between photographer and person photographed.

In Karsh’s time, this process involved a little more work than it does for us today. A simple Google search can reveal a lot about a person, and if we as photographers are lucky enough to be placed in a position to photograph someone remarkable, doing our homework is a crucial step towards success. .

5. Karsh didn’t hide his head behind his camera

Perhaps the biggest lesson we can learn from Karsh is how he engaged with his subject right before taking the shot. Based on Jerry Fielder’s book, “Karsh, Beyond the Camera”,

Once the lighting and composition were to his satisfaction, he innocently left the camera with the shutter in hand and engaged his subject, ready to squeeze the bulb, capture a moment of truth and share it with us.

How often, as portrait photographers, do we find ourselves with our faces buried in our cameras, constantly adjusting settings and increasing the barrier between us and our subject. Our focus is on shutter speeds and apertures when a unique human being stands just feet away from us, a one-of-a-kind story waiting to be told. Karsh knew the camera itself was the biggest obstacle between him and his subject, so he removed it as much as he could.

Breaking down the technological barrier is a remarkable goal for all of us, especially when using modern mirrorless cameras, which do an admirable job of tracking a subject’s eye and achieving critical focus without having to need to look through a viewfinder.

Some Final Thoughts

I was inspired to write this article after visiting the library and finding a wonderful book titled, Karsh: a fifty-year retrospective. I picked up this book and several others because at the time I felt quite uninspired and hoped that studying some of the greats would rekindle a creative spark. As well as learning the valuable lessons above, it reminded me of the joy that can be found in a physical book, especially a beautifully printed photo book in which great care has been taken in reproducing the images. .

Finally, I would like to thank Julie Grahame, main representative of the Karsh estate, for allowing me to use the images in this article.

All photos used with permission, © Yousuf Karsh,

About Norma Wade

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