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Wednesday, 20 February 2019


With all that time devoted to the pursuit of this arcane stuff, you could have written a chapter in your future book!

John C. will be most upset with you (I think).




But for the great portraitist, lighting is secondary. It is about the subject, about the connection between the photographer and the subject, about finding and creating that moment when the posture and gesture is, often indefinably, right.

Look at the hands in Garo's pictures, and you will see in an instant what young Karsh learned from him.

I thought I had a copy of that book but apparently not. At least I can't find it.

As a young photographer with illusions of running a portrait studio, I admired Karsh and his work. He lived and worked just 2 hours across the border from where I lived and I often thought of going to see him but sadly I never got around to doing so. My life might have been different in positive ways had I done so.

Great post. I confess I like the “horror of highlights” style. Could you think out loud about that particular turn of phrase, elaborate? I’m seeing the style, I like the phrase, but I’m having a hard time linking the two. “Risen out of the murk, floats the head and hands... softly now... please please please no strong highlights!” is my best guess at your elaboration.

No question Karsh is the better photographer-I studied his work 60 years ago and it is still good to see it.

I think I enjoy these articles about historical photography and photographers better than techno-articles regarding photographic gear.

It's interesting that around the same time Garo was trying to emulate Rembrandt within the halls of Harvard, August Sander was in a small town in Germany re-inventing photographic portraiture (with tools that were old-fashioned at the time) and photographing every strata of society. Underneath our supposed egalitarianism, America is a rigidly socially-stratified culture and has always been. It's also further irony that the wealthy, in seeking to flatter themselves in their portraits, end up as figures of kitsch within the history of photography. Art is a great balancer.

Similarly, I've never taken a shine to Karsh. His technique is unquestionable but in his great pains to flatter his subject - to either create or burnish their public image - he seems to obscure their personality rather than reveal it.

Fascinating lineage. Take one more step and you'll find that Herman Leonard, the late photographer of jazz legends, had worked for Karsh when he was just out of college.

You can see Karsh's influence in Leonard's approach to lighting, but the "sittings" became much less formal.

Funny thing, Karsh and Mortensen are my favourite portraitists, despite being so different. Along with a handful of others that deserve a piece written by you Mike, like Hurrell, or Halsman.

As I look at the imaages on the Harvard page, I wonder whether they were originally as dark as they are now. I don't know how the original prints were processed, but it is possible that they may have darkened over time. WHile they clearly were never "high key" images, I wonder if they were always so dark.

Thanks for the prompt. Spent an enjoyable time perusing the Karsh website - although I'd like to see the prints. Apart from the photographic attributes, the roll-call of personalities is quite absorbing

Personally I quite like those Garo portraits! They are very well light, they make the face the prominent subject, the expressions are fitting for the time and all are well viewed and leaving the torso in a subdued but supporting roll. I feel you may be being a little harsh on the highlights.

Mike, I love the stories you regale us with. Thank you.

When presented with the bill for his portrait the Admiral exploded. "Mr Karsh- I could buy a Battleship for this amount!."But Admiral,you could not give a Battleship to your girlfriend ".

Mike, I think I posed a question to you years ago about Karsh after looking at a collection of his portraits of the Marshall Supreme Court that is housed at BU Law School. I found the prints to be very dark in the same way I think you are describing of Garo? Compared with the tones we see today, the images seem very dark overall, with even the highlights not coming anywhere near white. They are only highlights relative to the general darkness off the rest of the tones. I haven't seen any other prints of Karsh, so I wasn't sure if this is typical of all of his work? But I guess we can see where this came from.


I like all of your writing but this piece was especially enjoyable. It was brief and full of information - I learned something and I think we all did. I'm more at home with portraits than anything else; I get lost when I try nature, or street, etc. Garo himself is a great subject/sitter. Elsa Dorfman (I think) said "find a jolly person and make their picture.." He's not particularly jolly in these, but enough of his nature comes through that you expect him to jump up and shout "How sweet it is!...."

Valiant Knights of Daguerre: Selected Critical Essays on Photography and Profiles of Photographic Pioneers Hardcover – August, 1978
by Sadakichi Hartman (Author), Harold Walter Lawton (Editor)

Horror of Highlights, or monochromatic photographic portrait in the style of Dutch Golden Age painters (Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, and Frans Hals).

About those highlights.

I am a long-time admirer of the work of Anne Brigman and Clarence White, Sr. Recently I traveled to Reno to see the major Brigman show at the Nevada Museum of Art. I had only seen one original print by Brigman before going to this show. Her prints are hard to find on display. I discovered from the show that she printed very dark.

Thinking about that made me aware of some connections.

When Brigman was getting started, Stieglitz made her a fellow of the Photo Secession and invited her to NYC with the promise of a show (the show never happened). But Stieglitz was not happy with the quality of the prints Brigman was producing. While she was back east, Brigman went to the first Maine workshop taught by Clarence White, Sr., where he taught her platinum printing. And he taught her to print dark, as he did.

Now Clarence White, Sr. also taught his son, Clarence White, Jr. to print. After White, Sr. died, his son continued to run the Clarence White School of Photography in NYC, and eventually moved it to Ohio University where it became the first degree-granting photography school in the US.

And, to this day, photographers who were trained at Ohio University (as I was) have a reputation for turning out dark prints.

It's a tradition. It's just what we do.

Could this fear of highlights be a way to shorten the exposure time?

BTW, at one time Karsh was adjunct faculty at the Clarence White School of Photography at Ohio University.

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