December 7, 2022
Yousef Karsh is widely regarded as one of the greatest portrait photographers of the twentieth century. In this essay, I discuss five ways that studying Karsh’s life and photos can impact our own work as portrait artists.
At the height of his career, Karsh was so renowned that to be photographed by him was simply “to be Karshed,” and he was regarded fondly as “Karsh of Ottawa.” This was quite an accomplishment for someone of such humble beginnings, who spent his childhood in a war-torn country and emigrated to Canada to escape the Armenian Genocide. But the road that began as an immigrant with little grasp of the language or customs of his new home to becoming a figure of iconic status is teeming with stories – and photos – that can teach us valuable lessons as photographers and artists. Although there are countless lessons to be learned, here are five that have influenced me and I hope will inspire you as well.
1. Karsh Had Definite Goals, and Pursued Them Vigorously
As a young man, Karsh had the privilege of apprenticing with John Garo, a notable portrait photographer in Boston. What was originally supposed to be six months turned into three years, as Garo recognized talent in his young apprentice, and Karsh recognized that he not only had much to learn about photography but also much to absorb in the company of Garo and his esteemed friends, which included many well-known figures in music and art. After daylight (and the ability to create natural light portraits) ended, Garo’s studio became an unofficial speakeasy and cultural hub, complete with young Yousef as a bartender. Of these formative years, Karsh recalled, “Even as a young man, I was aware that these glorious afternoons and evenings were my university.”
Early on, and not surprisingly, Karsh decided that he would photograph the greatest people of his time. When his time with Garo ended, he immediately moved to Ottawa and opened his own photo studio. Karsh said of his bold move, “In the capital of Canada, a crossroads of world travel, I hoped I would have the opportunity to photograph its leading figures and many foreign international visitors.”
We learn from this that from the very beginning of his career, Karsh had concrete goals as an artist and photographer. Instead of waiting for famous faces to find him, he purposely and thoughtfully 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 excellent his art was, it would not matter if no one knew who he was, and his goals made it necessary for him to relocate in order to realize 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 it often teaches us the most valuable lessons. Soon after relocating to Ottawa, Karsh was asked to join the Ottawa Little Theater, an amateur group that would not only profoundly impact his understanding of artificial light but also open an invaluable door for his career.
One of the players in this group was the son of the Governor General, and he and Karsh became such fast friends that the young man convinced his lofty parents to sit for a portrait with Karsh. The shoot was a complete disaster, however, as the young and inexperienced Karsh nervously posed the stately couple, he “in full military regalia with sword and decorations,” and she “elegantly gowned” and “statuesque” in appearance, as Karsh described them. He was so flustered by the event that the results were, in his words, “disastrous.”
Yet this profound, and potentially soul-crushing failure, was transformed by Karsh into his first great success. Amazingly, Karsh prevailed upon 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 many publications across the country.
Although it is never a welcome, the lessons that we learn from failure are always much greater than those we learn from success. Consider how Karsh surely replayed every detail of that first failed 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 did not let this rather abysmal failure cause him to give up, or to consider that he himself, was a failure. He failed, but he was not a failure. In fact, his faith in himself remained so strong that he welcomed back the kind-hearted (and patient) couple for a second session, which yielded excellent results.
3. Karsh Was Always Prepared
Karsh’s most famous portrait is the iconic image of Winston Churchill, looking rather perturbed. And although the story of how Karsh created this portrait has reached the status of legend, there are many important details in his retelling of the event that led up to his infamous cigar-grab that can teach us much about the art of creating a successful portrait.
In short, Karsh was always prepared, and left absolutely nothing to chance. He describes the lead-up to his Churchill portrait, saying
I waited in the Speaker’s Chamber where, the evening before, I had set up my lights and camera. But to get the giant to walk grudgingly from his corner to where my lights and camera were set up some little distance away was a feat! I went back to my camera and made sure that everything was all right technically.
These lesser-known, but extremely important, parts of the story can teach us much as photographers. Consider if Karsh had not taken ample time to set up his camera and lights, or if in his haste and nervousness, he did not double-check the settings once Churchill was in place for the photograph. His preparation, and attention to detail, ensured that nothing was left to chance. Surely, his lessons learned photographing the Governor General were learned well.
Karsh’s work ethic in general also portrays a man who was a perfectionist, and who did not shun the idea of spending countless hours in the studio learning not only how to create portraits with artificial light, but also using a multitude of printing techniques he painstakingly developed through countless hours of experimentation. Karsh was prepared.
4. Karsh Did His Homework On Each 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 a glimpse into their personality and soul. Take, for example, his image of cellist Pablo Casals, alone in a vast chamber with his cello, his back to the camera. This image portrays Casal’s dedication to his art, as well as his legendary devotion to practicing his beloved instrument. Or, consider his portrait of Pablo Picasso, where the artist has become part of his work, with a slightly aloof expression reminding the viewer of his art and his greatness as an artist.
Karsh credits his ability to capture his subjects with such truthfulness to a process he called “doing [his] homework,” in which he would endeavor to learn as much about a person as possible before photographing them. Learning about his subject not only provided a glimpse into their unique personality, but also served a practical purpose. Karsh made the act of connecting with his subject much easier, since he arrived armed with information that bridged the gap between the photographer and the person being photographed.
In Karsh’s time, this process involved quite a bit more work than it does for us today. A simple Google search can reveal much about a person, and if, as photographers, we are fortunate enough to be placed in a position to photograph someone of note, doing our homework is a crucial step towards success.
5. Karsh Didn’t Bury His Head Behind His Camera
Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from Karsh is in how he engaged with his subject just prior to taking the photo. According to Jerry Fielder’s book, “Karsh, Beyond the Camera”,
Once the lighting and composition were to his satisfaction, he would leave the camera with the shutter release innocently in his hand and engage his subject, ready to squeeze the bulb, capture a moment of truth, and share it with us.
How often do we, as portrait photographers, find ourselves with our faces buried in our cameras, constantly adjusting settings and increasing the barrier between us and our subject. Our attention is focused on shutter speeds and apertures when there is a unique human standing just a few feet away from us, a one-of-a-kind story waiting to be told. Karsh knew that the camera itself was the greatest obstacle between him and his subject, so he effectively removed it as much as was in his power.
Removing the technological barrier is a noteworthy goal for all of us to strive towards, especially when using modern mirrorless cameras, which do an admirable job tracking a subject’s eye and achieving critical focus without the 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 and several other books because at the time I was feeling quite uninspired, and hoped that studying some of the greats would reignite a creative spark. Besides learning the valuable lessons above, I was reminded of the joy that can be found in a physical book, especially a wonderfully printed photo book in which great care was involved in reproducing images.
Finally, I would like to thank Julie Grahame, Senior Representative for the Karsh Estate, for allowing me to use the images in this article.
All photos used by permission, © Yousuf Karsh, http://karsh.org