Once upon a time in the last century the world had "heroes." The 20th century was a period of turbulence, of innovation, and of jarring technical and social changes. Photography, principally via photo essay periodicals, became the primary medium by which the world recognized and lionized people whose extraordinary abilities and achievements led, informed, and entertained us through these times. Several photographers achieved renown creating images of 20th century heroes. But no photographer came close to creating as many iconic portraits of such figures as Yousuf Karsh. (Perspective: during his 60-year career Karsh had more than 15,000 portrait sittings and produced more than 150,000 negatives.)
A monumental exhibition now at the Art Institute of Chicago celebrates Karsh’s enormous body of work by displaying 100 of his portraits drawn from the more than 200 master prints gifted to the museum by Karsh’s widow. Timed to coincide with the centenary of Karsh’s birth on December 23rd of last year (although also very fitting to current political changes and economic conditions), the exhibit was two years in the planning.
Walking through this exhibit, which fills all four of the museum’s photo galleries, can best be described as a surreal experience. The prints are simply sublime. Karsh became a master of the "inspection" technique for developing his negatives. That is, he would develop his negatives by hand under a safe light to produce optimal shadows in specific areas of the image. In Karsh’s skilled hands this technique created a negative that embodied all of the significant tonality decisions and could consistently produce excellent prints with little coaxing. Although I had seen many of these portraits in various publications, nothing prepared me for seeing the actual master prints in person. The pitch blacks, the luscious mid-tones, and the precise highlights make it seem as though I was milling through an impossible cocktail party with some of history’s most notable figures. I expected Albert Schweitzer to lift his head as I passed, to overhear Muhammad Ali telling someone, "I am the greatest!", and to see Audrey Hepburn’s ponytail wiggle. This is photographic portraiture craftsmanship practiced at a level far above anything done today.
I encourage you to see the "Yousuf Karsh: Regarding Heroes" show if you have any interest in photographic portraiture or even in 20th century history, and if you have any excuse for visiting Chicago by the end of April. It’s unlikely that you will have another opportunity to see such a large collection of Karsh’s work exhibited again in your lifetime. But if a visit to Chicago is just not in your plans, the exhibit’s catalogue is the next best thing and, in fact, could be considered an essential part of the exhibit.
Published for this event by David R. Godine, and titled identically to the exhibit, the gorgeous catalogue was designed by Sara Eisenman, who organized it into three sections. The first section features an essay by David Travis, the recently retired founding head of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Photography and the curator of this exhibit. This is not a dry, academic essay; far from it. David is a very good writer. Here he blends more than two years of research into this exhibit with his 35+ years as one of the country’s preeminent curators of photographic art to create a lively work that smoothly mixes reminiscences with technical and historical context for Karsh’s work.
The second section is devoted to the images. Reproduction quality is excellent. Although the paper selection gives the images a slightly warmer tone than the actual prints, the tonal range is perfectly reproduced. Some images are presented as full-bleed, some not. Captioning identifies only the subjects and the year of the sitting.
The third section presents biographical profiles for each subject meticulously written by Patricia Kouba. (That in itself must have been a daunting task!) Accompanying most of these profiles are Karsh’s personal recollections of the subjects and their sittings. These are priceless little notes that are guaranteed to completely absorb you. What really made Karsh such an incomparable master, beyond his technical skills, was his genuine interest in his subjects and his ability to make them feel completely secure and at ease during a sitting. Both of these traits are abundantly evident in these notes. Jerry Fielding, Karsh’s primary assistant for more than 20 years, remarked that many subjects would feel comfortable enough to tell Karsh some of their most personal thoughts. Karsh took all such secrets to the grave, but his notes still often reveal the people behind these formidable portraits.
Our world today is short on genuine heroes, but long on celebrities and celebrity photographers. Neither can hold a candle to Yousuf Karsh or his subjects. To see this work in such an exhibition is to glimpse true greatness once upon a time, long ago.
Karsh Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, January 22–April 26, 2009
Catalogue at the Art Institute of Chicago’s online shop (not available through Amazon at this time)
Yousuf Karsh website (highly recommended)
Featured Comment by matt: "I happened to catch this show while in Chicago a few weeks back. Unlike many more recent portraitist, Karsh manages to exhibit a high level of virtuosity without being cruel to his subjects. He isn't handling them with kid gloves, but he isn't imposing on them either. You get a sense of cooperation and empathy between subject and photographer."
Featured Comment by Michael A. Smith: "Developing by inspection is not done 'to produce optimal shadows in specific areas of the image.' It is done to produce optimal highlights. It is, for those who know what they are doing, the most precise way to develop negatives and is practiced today by many photographers. Edward Weston always developed his negatives by inspection. Ansel Adams, with his 'Zone System' did not. Weston rarely had much dodging and burning to do on his prints. Adams, on the other hand, did more dodging and burning than any other large-format photographer. Developing film by time and temperature is hit or miss. Developing by inspection is not."
Mike adds: Michael A. Smith is a leading large-format photographer with many books and exhibitions to his credit. He's also a book publisher (Lodima Press) and has almost singlehandedly revived an Azo-type printing paper. I think perhaps the phrase "many photographers develop by inspection" is relative as to the meaning of "many"—I'd be surprised if one in 100 large-format photographers use this technique, and large format itself is an increasingly tiny niche amongst photographers in general. Still, it's an historically important technique for those interested in how early masters worked, and Michael has written a very articulate and descriptive article about the technique that you might find interesting even if you never intend to shoot a sheet of film in your life.
Incidentally, Michael's wife Paula Chamlee is also a gifted large-format photographer. Her limited edition 1997 book High Plains Farm—a loving look at the homestead of the sprawling and lonely farm in the Texas Panhandle where she grew up—is one of my personal favorites, a slice of true old-fashioned Americana in the tradition of Wright Morris. You can see some of the pictures online, and, like many of their other books, the book is still available directly from Michael and Paula. (As with all large format work, the original prints are better than the book reproductions, and the book reproductions are much better than the online JPEG-viewing experience.)