Karsh: Regarding Heroes

Great photos, history and words surrounded me in the gallery at Glenbow Museum. The black and white portraits by the famous Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) gave life to celebrated individuals of the 20th Century, and the experience of viewing this exhibition was inspiring for me. 

The first Karsh photograph I ever saw was of American novelist Ernest Hemingway. In that image, fans of the great story-teller see an outdoorsman, but his handsome, masculine face also shows an amazing sensitivity. As a fan of Hemingway’s history-related novels, A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, I felt that I actually knew Hemingway once I saw the Karsh image.

Audrey Hepburn © Estate of Yousuf Karsh, Photo Compliments Glenbow Museum

One hundred Karsh portraits are included in Glenbow’s exhibition. The portraits of Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King and Albert Einstein have become legendary and offer glimpses of history. Photos of Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn reveal that these stunning and popular actresses also possessed inner beauty. In fact, Karsh’s portraits seem to capture the very souls of the 20th Century’s most renowned thinkers, artists, writers, musicians, innovators, philosophers and healers.

Facial expressions in the Karsh photos are fascinating, too. Sophia Loren and Rudolf Nureyev smile playfully, and with other subjects, faint smiles are sometimes discernable. Yet, most photographs present serious and contemplative moments in these great lives.

From a writer’s perspective, the text accompanying the images was equally fascinating. Just as writers delve into the lives of people, Karsh also researched his subjects. Then, during the portrait sittings, he asked questions or made comments to engage his subjects. Not surprisingly, their true selves emerged for the master photographer.

As well, Karsh knew how to use light and darkness in creating moods and focus. In a few instances, we see some of the rooms in which subjects were photographed, but generally, Karsh used simple black and white backdrops for his subjects. Sometimes, shadows darken parts of the photos, and seemingly, there is a tension or play between what is revealed and what is not revealed. The blacks, whites and greys create textures, and we notice hands, wool, lace, wisps of hair, even eyelashes. The photographer manipulated light—whether from lamps or naturally occurring sources—to accentuate the personalities and inner lives of his subjects, and at least to me, use of light and darkness is much of the genius that is Karsh.

Before leaving the museum, I bought the book Karsh: A Biography in Images with commentary by Jerry Fiedler. In the book’s narrative passages and on gallery wall plaques, Karsh describes his experiences with the world’s iconic figures. Having researched Hemingway’s life and work, the photographer visited the author’s favourite bar and sampled his favourite drink, the daiquiri. He knew that the writer was considered macho, even callous, but when Karsh arrived for the sitting, a surprise awaited him: “I found a man of peculiar gentleness, the shyest man I ever photographed—a man cruelly battered by life, but seemingly invincible.”

As writers, we strive to present the humanity that makes characters real. As history buffs, we learn about individuals who have changed the world, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Through photography, we search for what is unique and what is universal in people. Although famous for his photography, Karsh was a master of all three disciplines.

So, if you want inspiration related to writing, history or photography, visit the Karsh exhibit at Glenbow Museum, Calgary (www.glenbow.org), before it closes on June 15. Curator David Travis from The Art Institute of Chicago has chosen outstanding portraits for the travelling exhibition, and you won’t be disappointed.

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