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Tuesday, 06 May 2014


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So not a fan of the canonical Karsh taxidermic style portrait. Borderline kitsch doesn't seem an altogether revisionist take simply because they usually celebrate more than they analyze their subjects.

What a great critique of those shows. (He should make a living out of doing it professionally -- fat chance!).


Thanks for the tip! I am in DC right now, while my wife is attending the ASTD convention. I'll have some time to myself, and this looks like a good place to spend it.

Be sure to check out the Winogrand exhibit at the National Gallery. And the Wyeth, while you're there. (I'm from near "Wyeth country" so I guess I'm biased for his work.)

Nice Post, Thank You.

Mike, is it true that you also always worked in the darkroom in a suit, tie, French Cuffs, links and pocket square?
I need to try that for formal portraiture ; -))

[Well, that, plus my top hat, silk cape, and "magic wand."

Oh, and bunny slippers. --Mike]

Terrific essay by Will Trecento. I especially enjoyed his description of lighting techniques done by Karsh.

Mr Trecento you need to go to more shows and report back to us.


I bet Bobby Z hates that photo.

Nice review. As for Bob Dylan, he's still thin and still touring! (His current voice is a matter of debate. People used to say he couldn't sing -- they were wrong -- but now he can't sing.) Who would have thought he'd still be at it in in his early 70s?

Re CGW's " taxidermic style portrait" comment, I can understand that. But remember that Karsh was of the post-WWII era and this style of portraiture was very much the fashion, especially the level he was working at (VIPs, celebrities). Moreover, a little story: I took a studio lighting class a ways back, and one assignment was to select a studio portrait taken by a photographer, then try to break down the elements and replicate it. I chose Karsh's portrait of JFK. Let me tell you, it was very, very difficult. I spent days dissecting and hours on the setup. I got maybe 60% of it. It made me appreciate the subtleties of lighting that went into his work. He was a master at what he did.

"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."

we will see what we will see in 10-20 years from now. My bet is that "better" cameras don't make better pictures.

As a portraitist and absolute Karsh fan, I tried to replicate his techniques more than once - to various degrees of success. It's not even that his lighting is particularly arcane or even complicated. It's just so bleeping meticulous and precise. Tiny movements of the strobe or your subject can make it or break it. In times like this I always wish I could afford a lighting assistant...

Thanks for the report, Will. I love that portrait of Dylan!

Personally, I much prefer Avedon's location work (Auden in the snow) to what he did in the studio.

FWIW, my guess is that it was shot with a 150 mm or 135 mm. The perceived 'compression' in the trees is simply because they are actually closer together. Either way, it's a nice shot.

BTW, as a long time photographer using "real" film, I can tell you that was a real difference re: "look" in how an image was rendered on film, between continuous tungsten sources and modern strobe. It was almost impossible to get that "Karsh" (or Hollywood) look without using continuous lighting due to the reciprocity failure, actual color vs. tone reproduction of the film, etc. etc. You could shoot something using all the same types of light, with strobe tubes in them, and then replace them all with tungsten, and the stuff would look entirely different (heck, I did the tests myself back in the 70's!). This is the kind of stuff that even fairly accomplished photographers didn't understand back then.

But when you're talking modern digital, I know none of this is true, so reproducing the Hollywood look in digital is pretty difficult. When I've seen photographers try to do it in modern digital, it looks more like what film and strobe looked like, whether it was photographed strobe or continuous...

BTW, it's why I still shoot B&W film...

So not a fan of words I have to look up.

ca-non-i-cal - adjective Also, ca·non·ic.
1 pertaining to, established by, or conforming to a canon or canons.
2 included in the canon of the Bible.
3 authorized; recognized; accepted: canonical works.
4 Mathematics . (of an equation, coordinate, etc.) in simplest or standard form.
5 following the pattern of a musical canon.

tax·i·der·my - noun
the art of preparing and preserving the skins of animals and of stuffing and mounting them in lifelike form.

Kitsch - noun
something of tawdry design, appearance, or content created to appeal to popular or undiscriminating taste.

re·vi·sion·ist - noun
1 an advocate of revision, especially of some political or religious doctrine.
2 a reviser.
3 any advocate of doctrines, theories, or practices that depart from established authority or doctrine.
4 of or pertaining to revisionists or revisionism.
5 attempting to reevaluate and restate the past based on newly acquired standards.

take - verb (used with object), took, tak·en, tak·ing.
1 to get into one's hold or possession by voluntary action: to take a cigarette out of a box; to take a pen and begin to write.
2 to hold, grasp, or grip: to take a book in one's hand; to take a child by the hand.
3 to get into one's hands, possession, control, etc., by force or artifice: to take a bone from a snarling dog.
4 to seize or capture: to take an enemy town; to take a prisoner.
5 to catch or get (fish, game, etc.), especially by killing: to take a dozen trout on a good afternoon.

"simply because they usually celebrate more than they analyze their subjects"
See - Portrait of Winston Churchill

Being a master of your craft and leaving a lasting legacy of art (whether it's to your taste or not) speaks for itself.

Adding to Will's recommendation, be sure to see also "Face Value: Portraiture in the Age of Abstraction" It gave me a few ideas to try when I work on stuff with intent to print.

Thank you everyone, for your flattering comments. I wish I could respond to everyone right away, but I guess I'll do just one.

Tom Kwas,
I haven't seen the primary sources, but my understanding is that Karsh used an orthochromatic film when shooting men. I don't know which frequencies it didn't see. My hunch is that it was blind to the blue end of the spectrum. Combined with the hot lights, which a high temperatures have a strong yellow component, he did not need a yellow filter. Is that what you meant by "actual color versus tone reproduction"? I'd love to hear more about the tests you ran. That kind of first-hand knowledge is hard to come by.

Other commentators suggest that Karsh underexposed slightly, and then selectively raised the highlights by developing by inspection, in order to make negatives that could be easily mass produced by his lab. (As well as directly manipulating the negatives with toning and bleaching after development.) I didn't mention it in the review, but there was a photo of Clark Gable that had some really...odd midtones in his face, the kind of weird midtones that I associate with heavy curve tweaking in Photoshop. I think this kind of technique might make it really difficult to reproduce Karsh's style coming from a "straight photography" perspective.

I have a completely unsubstantiated hypothesis that part of the "Hollywood Style" is the use of hard light on a subject combined with sharp, low-contrast lenses with a fair amount of uncorrected aberrations away from the center. You know, Commercial Ektars (Tessar design). But Mike knows that stuff like the back of his hand, I'm just surmising.

p.s. Mike, I don't know if my emails reach you or not. My mail provider (zoho) apparently gets blacklisted sometimes. I'll be switching soon.

Hi Will,

...actually your hypothesis is fairly correct. What people don't understand when they try to mimic "Hollywood" lighting from this period, is that the results are a combination of a lot of stuff we don't do anymore. Not just 'continuous' lighting, but tungsten lighting, which is heavily orange biased (compared to daylight) for the black & white film, hard light, that was also softened through retouching, so you get a 'hard/soft' effect. Lots of pancake make-up! The reciprocity effect of long exposures with tungsten light had a tendency to act as somewhat of a 'fill' to the shadows, smoothing the light out even more (and dodging the ultra-sharp effect of strobe on film). I'm not even sure modern black & white film has much of a reciprocity that does this anymore at 1/30th or 1/15th.

And yeah, people used 'ortho' film which did not render all colors natural (it was blind to certain tones), but many switched to panchromatic as soon as it was available. What modern purveyors of digital fail to understand, tho, is that setting your camera for black & white still doesn't emulate panchromatic black & white film, because panchromatic was "near" panchromatic, in reality, and modern digital (and actually scanning color material and converting to black & white, as we found out in the 90's when we were doing that a lot) doesn't give the look of black & white pancho film either, and has to be futzed with to get a good result.

If you set your camera to black & white, or scan a color transparency into black & white, the camera or scanner will produce similar densities of green or red, as similar gray tones. Even panchromatic film did not do that, and the subtle difference is what comes into play with black & white digital not looking like black & white film; and why I beg people to use a film emulator, like Alien, to get a better look.

If I have to shoot black & white jpegs for someone, for immediate delivery, and cannot run a raw file through a film emulator, I set the black & white on my camera to have an orange filter setting, I found that's about as close as you can get without further work.

I recommend anyone still shooting black & white film, to shoot a nice portrait with someone bouncing tungsten light out of a card, and maybe having a hard back or hair light, and try to shoot that about 1/15th of a second. Then replace all the tungsten with strobes, and shooting it at the same f/stop, and whatever the strobe exposure will be to get the same density. When you print them, you'll be surprised at the difference.

All this stuff seems like subtle differences, but when added together, it really makes a difference in getting that "hollywood" look....

For a number of years I volunteered time to a local (small town) theater group, taking rehearsal shots and portraits of the cast and crew for display while the plays were running. For each show we would have a “Photo Night” when everyone came to the rehearsal prepared to have their portrait taken. For one of these shoots an elderly woman who was a member of the cast showed up with her own portrait that she wanted to have in the display instead of having me take a new one (which she hated doing).

She handed me the photo to have a look and I just started laughing. It was exquisite in every way. Very posed. Beautiful lighting. Printed the way photos are supposed to be printed. Obviously done by someone with exceptional talent. “Agnes” I said. “What are you trying to pull over on me?” She laughed and admitted it was done by Karsh. She had lived across the country in Ottawa about twenty five years earlier and had it done at the time.

Needless to say, I had her take it home and insisted she sit for a new one, which she graciously did. It was absolutely wonderful to hold a Karsh print and see to it up close. Certainly put me in my place. What an inspiration!

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