‘Regarding heroes’ through a master’s lens

His iconic portraits, full of emotion, thought and care, leave the viewer with no question of his status as a master of light and tone. His sitters include the most important figures of the 20th century: Nelson Mandella, Winston Churchill, Hellen Keller, Albert Einstein and Audrey Hepburn. Regardless of location or background, Yousuf Karsh managed to evoke some of the personality of his sitter, creating iconic images as celebrated as his subjects.

This all becomes very apparent as one walks through the exhibit Yousuf Karsh: Regarding Heroes, which opened on September 26 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. Celebrating the centennial of Karsh’s birth in 2008, curator David Travis and the Art Institute of Chicago coordinated a touring exhibition of his work. Andrew Kear, associate curator at the WAG, organized the layout of the exhibit.

Karsh was born in 1908 in Turkey and immigrated to Canada in 1925. He moved to Ottawa where he founded his own photography studio in 1932 after working as an apprentice. Early on in his career he began photographing important political figures. The sitters were happy with the results and, because of this, Karsh was chosen to photograph Winston Churchill after his pivotal speech in 1941. While looking at this very image, Kear told me about the preparation Karsh put into this photograph. Churchill is seated in a chair in the senate; a deep black background combined with his dark suit highlights his face. Churchill seems deep in thought; it appears that Karsh just happened to capture this moment. But, in fact, as Kear explained “this photograph is a highly constructed image and Karsh had planned this photograph.”

Knowing that he would not have a long time to photograph his subject, Kear explained that Karsh hired a model of similar stature and set up in the senate the night before. Indeed, you can see by looking around the exhibit that his poses are manipulated and models often appear interchangeable — for example: the photographs of Einstein and Bogart. Both men appear with their hands clasped in front of their faces, taken so that the left side of their body is visible and their faces are turned towards the lens.

Organized thematically rather than chronologically, the exhibit’s layout can be confusing at times, but provides insight into both the similarities of his sitters, and his artistic style. For example, the segment of the exhibit where Ali and Hepburn reside might convey themes of superstardom and glamour, but when Churchill joins the arrangement it feels less about the subject matter and more about the importance of the photographs in terms of Karsh’s career.

The rest of the exhibit is composed of groupings of images with more focus, for example a wall of artists, including Georgia O’Keefe, Henry Moore and Alberto Giocometti. There is also an interesting triptych of writers: Tennesse Williams, George Bernard Shaw and William Somerset Maugham. These vaguely-themed groupings continue with pairings of architects, movie stars and political figures.

One of the corners appears to be an odd arrangement with no particular intent, but, as Kear explained, this section aims to highlight the emotions of the sitter, particularly that of loneliness. “These three works in the corner show that the most vulnerable people are not necessarily in isolation,” said Kear. These works all show more than one sitter; for example, Helen Keller is photographed with Polly Thompson. Kear explained that, throughout his career, Karsh’s first and second wives felt it was important that Karsh write about his experiences with different sitters. Reflecting on one of his sittings with Helen Keller, Karsh wrote poetically saying that Keller “placed her marvelously sensitive fingers on my face, in her mind’s eye I knew she already had me completely photographed.”

A final interesting comparison the exhibit makes is between the images of Ingrid Bergman, photographed in 1946, and Brigitte Bardot, photographed in 1958. These two photographs hang over one another and the comparison of the two Hollywood starlets highlights how much the social standards of femininity and the ideals of beauty changed over this time period.

Ultimately, Yousuf Karsh: Regarding Heroes is interesting both for the subject matter and the talented way Karsh was able to capture his subjects. His portraits are much more than a means of documenting the sitter’s appearance — indeed, he hoped to evoke much more from the person in front of his lens. As Karsh once explained “my quest in making a photograph is for a quality that I know exists in the personality before me — what I sometimes call the inward power.”

Yousuf Karsh: Regarding Heroes runs until January 3 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.