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Thursday, 12 March 2009


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I will always remember Karsh's riveting portrait of Winston Churchill scowling menacingly at the camera. It seems that Mr. Churchill insisted on being photographed chomping a cigar. Karsh simply snatched the cigar out of Churchill's mouth and then snapped the picture of his infuriated subject. It shows that Karsh wasn't intimidated easily and that he was nimble in getting what he wanted.

Thanks for this Mike!

It is interesting that the Chicago exhibit coincides in timing with another Karsh exhibit taking place at the McMichael Gallery just north of Toronto. The McMichael Gallery typically exhibits paintings and is renown for its permanent collection of the Canadian "Group of Seven" artists.


As you point out, it is wonderful to see the actual prints in person. I was disappointed that there were not more portraits displayed in the McMichael show. They did however haves several interesting short movies as part of the show.

And thanks to you, Ken!

I happened to see a Karsh exhibition in Boston last fall. "Behind the Words", fittingly at the public library (a sight by itsself!) in Copley Square, a sample of his portraits of authors. I'd never heard of the guy, but it was right next to my hotel, for free, photography - who could resist. I can only second Ken's appreciation of the print quality, especially the richness of the shadows was stunning. My first thought was somthing like "ahhh, you could never achieve this with digital", but on second thoughts I guess it is more to do with the printing than the actual picture-taking. This exhibit too had the little notes (Leibovitz at work reminded me of those) - very insightful and often funny.

Unfortunately there is next to nothing in print by the guy. And the catalogue would incur 27USD in shipping cost to Europe, duh.

"Several photographers achieved notoriety creating images of 20th century heroes."

I sure hope not.


Excellent, thank you for posting this. Just ordered the catalogue.

I saw an exhibition of Karsh's work in Vancouver BC about 20 years ago. The images were ones that were actually printed by Karsh (or under his direction . . . can't remember). The interesting thing was that many of these iconic images were altered with pencil, gently adding shadows where there hadn't been any in the original prints and showing distressing or damage with a stylus or other sharp instrument to delete small imperfections in the prints. Perhaps this was done for reproduction? Perhaps they were work prints (although they weren't presented as such -- THAT I would have remembered). I just love his work. I strive for a similar sense of illusion in my own work -- that I have captured something essential of the subject in my portraits. More of a chicken-and-egg problem with Karsh, because his images were essential in creating the public (and personal) perception of what specifically was essential about the personalities in front of his lens. The images Ken has selected are perfect examples, as is the image of Churchill alluded to above.

Ben Marks

I doubt that the development by inspection was that critical - these are studio shots and Karsh was a master at lighting. I am sure he carefully controlled his lighting ratios, which is what made his negatives so good.

True. Development by inspection was a pretty primitive method even in Karsh's time. The practice was common amongst the pictorialists, and a particular master was Edward Steichen--who gave it up long before the end of his career. (I tried it once without much success. It didn't work very well with panchromatic films.)


I took a friend to see a Karsh exhibit here in Montgomery, Alabama, and it was encouraging to see someone with only a passing interest in photgoraphy react so strongly and favorably to how beautiful the images were. They really need to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

Ack! Chicago? End of April? That is not nearly absurd enough to be safe, but I've already got a lot of time off scheduled between now and then for other things.

"Unlike many more recent portraitist[s], Karsh manages to exhibit a high level of virtuosity without being cruel to his subjects."
Exactly. I've seen an exhibit of Martin Schoeller's portraits, and it made me wonder why any celebrity would consent to such abuse. Giant prints of large format close-up photographs carefully lit to highlight every pore and nose hair, they seemed calculated to humiliate. I wonder if it's sort of a hazing ritual "A-list" celebs have to pass to learn the secret handshake.

A long time ago, in my teens, I came to realize that photographs were made by photographers. The first photgrapher whose work and name I recognized and that inspired me was Karsh. Growing up in eastern Canada I was regularly exposed to his photographs in the local media.
Ed Richards has it right. He was a master at lighting. I heard or read somewhere he used standard setups and didn't use a light meter in the studio. Don't know about developing by inspection... I wonder what film he used.
Thanks to Ken for the exhibit review. There's an exhibit at the Los Angeles Public Library this summer/fall that I hope to see.

I m a big fan and Karsh is all over the place it seems. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts and The Boston Public Library both had karsh exhibits going at the same time. I assume that the Chicago exhibit encompasses the MFA exhibit and a bit more. Also, here in Providence the Rhode Island School of Design just started an exhibit on his portraits of artists - well worth seeing.

Three of my prized possessions are child portraits of my mom taken by Mr Karsh. These hand signed prints are inspirational in a number of ways, All great artists have to start somewhere. It is very interesting to see where he really started. But I think my favorite part is that my mom must have been a difficult child. To keep her happy, Yousef gave her his light meter to play with. Even back then, Yousef was aware of his subjects hands, and how they convey emotion and personality.

Jerry Fielder, Karsh's primary assistant for over 20 years, told a funny story at the opening of this exhibit.

In 1990 Karsh was to photograph Nelson Mandela. Mandela arrived at Karsh's studio in Ottawa with only an hour of rest after his long trip from South Africa. Karsh was normally a master of establishing quick rapport with his sitters but he could see that Mandela was just plain exhasuted and that getting that "public mask" off would be very hard at that moment.

So Karsh decided to try telling Mandela a story to warm things up. He recounted a recent session in which he photographed the Pope. While chatting, he asked him, "How many people work at the Vatican?". The Pope considered the question for a moment, as if trying to formulate an accurate answer, and then replied, "About half.". For a moment Mandela's exhaustion and troubles lifted as he found the little story hilarious. Click! Karsh managed to capture that moment in this portrait:


What a master.

Sounds like a terrific exhibition and book.

However, I'm tired of the PR spin about the Churchill portrait. I address it in part of this essay:


Those of you outside the U.S. who can't afford the catalog: Karsh published numerous books in his lifetime, including one retrospective that was printed and reprinted for 10-20 years. Has Sophia Loren on the cover. I'll bet most used bookstores with a good photography section will have a copy.

In the mid 50's a friend of my mother was walking through a park in Ottawa when a gentleman taking some flower photos asked her to walk through the scene a couple of times. She had forgotten all about it when few weeks later she got a small print in the mail with a note of thanks for her time from Yousef Karsh.

Karsh simply snatched the cigar out of Churchill's mouth and then snapped the picture of his infuriated subject.

That reminds me of a story about Jill Greenberg

"Several photographers achieved notoriety creating images of 20th century heroes."
I sure hope not.

That reminds me of a story about Jill Greenberg

Come to think of there is something about that signature lighting setup...

Those Canadians! Although I understand that Jill is native to Montreal so maybe she's Québécois

(I couldn't resist it's a joke , well sorta ..)

I'm going. Thanks Ken.

If this show was at the Boston Museum of Artwork in December, and I think it was... it is amazing. :)

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.

"Between 1987 and 1998, the National Archives of Canada acquired the outstanding Yousuf Karsh Collection of over 300,000 negatives, photographic prints and transparencies, representing the creative oeuvre of his 60-year career."


In 1924, Yousuf Karsh immigrated to Canada, sponsored by his uncle, photographer George Nakash.


Correct me if I'm mistaken, but I think the only negative film which can be handled under a safelight is orthochromatic, and he used 8x10 negatives, which also lends itself to tray development.

I also read that he had a skylight which faced due north.

Of course, it was more than the sum of the tools he used, or we could all do it.

I had the extremely good fortune to blunder into this exhibit when it was at the Boston MFA in December. I was bringing my daughter to the airport and suggested we swing by the MFA. It was a regular habit when she attended Suffolk Univ.

I spent a very long time among these incredible images. I am watching Audrey Hepburn in "Two for the Road" as I write this and easily recall the striking portrait as it was displayed, not far from the Hemingway and the most incredibly structured George Bernard Shaw. One of the very few color color photographs was Sophia Loren. The shot was used for the cover of one of his monographs.
I made the complete tour at least four times before I left (with a can't ignore stop through the impressionist's big room)
There was also a smaller print of the spectacular O'keefe portrait that was on display at the Portland Museum for the "O'keefe and the camera" exhibit earlier in 2008. easily the most outstanding print on display and in the very good company of Porter, Adams and others.

Re: Featured Comment

I think Churchill would disagree :-)

Thanks very much for bringing this exhibit to my attention. While I can't make it to the exhibit, I certainly will get the catalogue, motivated by your enthusiastic and eloquent depiction of the man and his work.

His web site is fabulous. I really enjoyed reading the stories that accompany the portraits.

Regarding Michael Smith's comments, I remember someone that said that, after she’d seen Ansel Adams at work, she could affirm: the pre visualization was fallacious.

Not that I should need to mention it here, but I will just for emphasis.

don't even begin to think the on-line images or reprints are even close. I was so stunned by the skin texture, all I could think of was was the life-like paintings of John Singer Sargent.

In 1987 the Muscarelle Museum at the College of Willam and Mary had a Karsh exhibit with the artist in attendance. I brought my copy of "Karsh" to the exhibit and the master was kind of enough to engage me in long conversation as well as personalize the tome with his signature and a nice note. When I saw the large prints in the gallery, I was stunned as I had never personally seen anything as photographically powerful as his portraits. Not even Adams' prints, which had been on display at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, could compare. Just Sunday I had gotten "Karsh" out and paged through it, still awed by the artistic and technical excellence possessed by the master portraitist of at least two generations.

I've never been a fan of Karsh's work. His posing strikes me as heavy handed and obvious. One dull cliched heroic portrait after another. Yes, the printing is spectacular but there is a lot of pencil retouching on the negs to give the highlight/shadow transitions. I've also always had my doubts about the Churchill cigar story. It sounds like something that was made up after the fact & people repeat it because it sounds good. Any primary source for this myth?

Hi Ken:

I have really enjoyed your well written and insightful posts on this and other forums. This one is no exception and I will try to travel to Chicago to see this exhibit. I did notice the misuse of notoriety as Jeremy has already pointed out. I believe the use of notoriety as a synonym for fame or renown began with sports broadcasters; in particular, Monday Night Football, during the Howard Cosell era. I can understand why, in the description of a linebacker, notoriety might be more appealing than renown, but the pervasiveness of this word in sports broadcasting has been notorious (sorry). Ironically, in the description of many modern athletes the word seems to be returning to its original meaning.


My wife and I saw the exhibit in Chicago last month. It is indeed quite amazing, stunning really. What struck me the most about it was his use of lighting and shadow. In most of these portraits the majority of the print area was pure black, with only a directional light illuminating the face, or the face and upper torso. Reminded me very much of Vermeer, which I suspect was purposeful. A very dramatic and kind of theatrical effect, that you don't see very often anymore. I really liked the way the prints looked.

FWIW, the Chicago exhibit is not the same as what was shown recently at the Boston MFA. The Boston exhibition was an overall retrospective of Karsh's career, and mixed a smaller number of portraits with examples of other work.

Hey, there's some terrific comments here. Thanks for filling this story out, TOP gang! A few additional comments in reply to posters.

- My remarks regarding Karsh's use of the "inspection" technique for developing negatives are taken directly from authoritative, first-hand documentation. (I, personally, know little of chemical darkroom techniques.)

- The cigar-yanking story surrounding Winston Churchill's portrait, recounted earlier by Alex P. Schorsch, is basically TRUE. See Karsh's own notes on this sitting at his commemorative site: http://www.karsh.org/#/the_work/portraits/winston_churchill/
(His wife goaded him into making notes about each of his sittings, realizing that they would one day be nearly as important as the portraits.)

- My original use of "notoriety" was, indeed, a mistake. Mike was gracious enough to edit it to "renown" before I was even aware of the error. Thank you very much, Mike!

Thanks again for filling-out other information on Karsh exhibitions, etc.

Ah Mike: I knew I had a reason to use that free Metra pass that Blago gave us old folks. Will carry the LX3. Can't wait.

Dave Kee

How do you develop Panchromatic film by inspection? Or did Karsh have stocks of Ortho film stashed away right through the 1990s?

Not every one appreciates every style or genre of photography. Of course, one is not “wrong” if he doesn't care for the work of someone who is generally acknowledged as one of the all-time greats. Taste differ. But why is there always someone who tries to exalt himself by attempting to let a little air out of the famous photographer's legend? Before I finished the first paragraph of this article about the much revered Karsh, I knew the comments would contain at least one or two such attempts; I wasn't disappointed. And as usually happens, their attempts attained neither objective.

I worked in a portrait studio in New Orleans in the 1980's under a photographer who held Yousuf Karsh up as the standard to which we aspired. Being young and impressionable, that particular outlook on what a portrait ought to be took root, and still strongly influences how I look at a portrait today. I guess that's why I don't "get" collections like Nadav Kander's "Obama's People", or much of Avedon's portrait work. I know there is merit in their very different style of portraiture; many even prefer it to Karsh's approach. I, however, honestly can't appreciate it. Perhaps it's just personal taste or the influence of an early mentor, but when I do the occasional portrait for someone today, Karsh's approach is still the one I prefer to pursue.

Did you intend the irony in that comment, or was that inadvertent...?


As for film development by inspection; Kodak offered a chemical called 'desensitzer' well into the 1980's that is added to the developer, in order to allow viewing of the film by a green safelight while processing. But more importantly, I think Mr. Karsh used orthochromatic film for many of his portraits- Kodak also offered "Tri-X Ortho" film in sheet sizes, well into the 1990s, and specifically marketed it for portraits of men. TXO 4163 gave darker skin tones than panchromatic films, and may well have been part of Mr. Karsh's method.

I hate Karsh. I think his famous portraits are contrived, artifical, and smell of the lamp. The over done lighting makes the subjects' heads look like they are made out of wood, and their skin made of leather.

The metaphor is appropriate, because the expressions are wooden, as if the subjects are determinedly resolved to not let their discomfort show through. He does not like his subjects, and they do not like him.

Not trying to be controversial. He is technically very good. But I see neither passion nor restraint. I wonder what his reputation would have been without celebrity subjects (No, I will not also talk about Annie Leibowitz).

Mani, as Michael Smith would tell you, one can develop pan film by inspection. All this is in Michael's article (see the link above), but the net is that you develop for half or more of the expected total time in complete darkness. You then "sneak a look" periodically, having developed a good sense for what the highlights ought to look like under a green safelight. Green is not used because of any less sensitivity to that color by pan film, but rather because our eyes are more sensitive to it, and we "see more" with the same wattage of green light. I've seen Michael and Paula do it, and if I were shooting much sheet film today, would take the time to learn. I think it would be pretty easy once you learn what to look for, and more precise than time and temperature.

One of my favourite Karsh stories is one that was long rumoured, but was confirmed prior to his passing, and some of us who live in Ottawa were lucky enough to see.

For years he lived in an apartment in a grand hotel here, the Chateau Laurier. Immediately beside the Chateau is the Rideau Canal, and then the Canadian Parliament buildings. This makes the sidewalk outside the Chateau a wonderful spot for tourists to have their photo taken.

Every once in a while tourists, who had no clue who he was, would stop him and ask him to take their photo. There are apparently a fair number of people with unpublished Karsh originals on everything from cheap point and shoot cameras to horrible polaroids.

I saw it happen from across the street once, and kicked myself for not having a camera so that I could record it, and then ask him to shoot me as well.

This was a great post, and why I keep coming back to this site. It led me to explore more about the artist, and to learn more about him and his work.

I guess art is in the eye of the beholder. I for one think Karsh's work is outstanding. I like his lighting/tonality, and his selection of poses. His portraits all give an air of dignity to his subjects, unlike many modern portrait photographers, e.g., Liebowitz. You really feel as if he's captured the essence of his subjects.

My introduction to Karsh was around 1972-73. I was staying at the Chateau Laurier, in Ottawa, where Karsh kept his studio.

A few portraits were hung near the studio, and I was amazed. I was not yet a photographer, but a friend who also was there had a Canon FTb and therefore was an authority. He complained that Karsh's representation of skin made people look "arthritic".

This didn't seem right to me, but what did I know? Along with my lack of technical photographic knowledge, I was terribly insecure at that period of my life.

Later I came to realize what great skills Karsh had, both in his visual approach and his technical acumen. It was then that I realized that I could form my own opinions and disagree wtih "experts". I always associate Karsh with this mini-awakening, which adds to my appreciation of his life and work.

In an article in the New York Times, Jan of 1990 I believe, the interviewer asked Karsh what his goal was. Karsh simply said that he just wanted to make it easier for the next photographer. The interviewer was stumped. He/She was looking for something earth shattering and he made this unselfish comment. I thought it said a lot about the man, who is probably one of the best portrait photographers ever. And the thing that to me was more incredible was that no one picked up on it and ran with it. Being a second generation photographer and exposed to photography my whole life made me even appreciate his comment even more. My father made a photograph of him talking to me when I was about 8 or 9, and he looked to be enthralled explaining something to this kid who did not know anything about photography, etc at this age. This from a man who has spent time with Popes, Presidents, Prime Ministers... Just an incredible human being.

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