Our "See A Show This Year" post the other day inspired reader Will Trecento to...see a show, naturally. He had this to say:
Here's my report:
I just got back from the National Portrait Gallery. The Karsh exhibition was actually rather small; I can see why they split it into two different exhibition dates. It was reasonably popular, but the "American Cool" exhibition on the second floor was really busy. Photos of celebrities by famous photographers from the mid-1960s through the 1990s.
The two most interesting pictures at the Karsh exhibition were one of his wife and a self-portrait. The one of his wife showed a kind of tender interest on his part that was very different than the rest. The other was a large (24x36" or larger) inkjet that the museum did as a kind of title card. It was of Karsh himself looking up at a 8x10 negative still in its steel hanger. Really well posed, and much more visually interesting and complex (less static, I suppose?) than the rest. Clearly, having the total cooperation of his model :-) helped produce really good results.
There's more to tell, of course. There is a splendid picture of Humphrey Bogart, and I spent a few minutes taking notes on the different directions the lights were coming from. One neat trick Karsh used was to let the hand that was further away go ever so slightly out of the field of focus, but to light it with a strong rim light against a black background to create a strong local contrast. The effect was to give depth cues that prevent over-flattening the image, without losing the outline of the figure.
I think I'd have a hard time replicating his lighting with strobes. I can see why he used hot lights, and why people now are excited about using continuous LED lighting, particularly since higher ISOs are so clean now.
In the "American Cool" exhibition, I was too conscious of the celebrity of the subjects portrayed to get much of a feel for the photographs as such. There was a late Avedon, a contact print of John Stewart mugging for the camera—the usual white background and odd tonality. It was interesting to see that he clipped his subject's head at the top of the frame, which was pretty noticeable since he also printed the film holder marks at the edge. It was also interesting to compare it to his 1965 portrait of Bob Dylan (above). Full length, with a background softened to a neat pattern of light and dark blurs, forming a halo around Dylan's head (naturally). The trees in the background seemed ever so slightly compressed, so maybe he was choosing to use a short telephoto? Interesting, since the current popular style would have used a wide ƒ/1.4 or a very tight 135 to 150mm ƒ/2.8. Also, wow was Bob Dylan thin! An image search for "avedon dylan" produces a number of different printing variations.
There were a couple of portraits of Hunter S. Thomson and Jack Kerouac. I was most struck by how very ordinary and middle-aged they looked. Oh, and there was a portrait of Johnny Depp, quite good looking as usual. I was struck by how the photographer chose* to let his near arm and shoulder drift out of the zone of sharp focus, and how significant the near-side bokeh was in that decision. (This was Annie Leibovitz.) Of course, this subtlety is completely invisible at web sizes.
I left with the feeling that most of what I had seen could have been done with 16–24 megapixels, maybe even 12, given the print sizes. Certainly all of the color film work I saw could easily have been bettered by any camera from the last ten years.
I know I'm not saying anything that Mike and Ctein haven't said before, over and over again, but it's really interesting to see it in person.
*We'll assume it was a choice.
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Featured Comments from:
Alan: "Among my prized possessions are a couple of portraits of my mother taken (and signed) by Yousef Karsh. It is a reminder that even the great portrait photographer had to start by taking baby pictures. By the way my favourite part of the picture is that my mom is holding a light meter. I guess she was a bit fidgety and Mr. Karsh had to give her something to play with...."
Tom Kwas: "Gotta Say, when I lived in D.C., the National Portrait Gallery was one of my big haunts! Always loved hanging out there...always something interesting going on...."