It's fascinating to learn about photographers whose work I have looked at before without ever thinking about the way the photographs were taken, let alone about the photographer himself. Yousouf Karsh is one of them.
Karsh has a very distinct style, which I recognized after googling 'portrait photography' in images. They have a lot of contrast, dark blacks and highlights through rim- and back lighting. Most portraits are from the waist up or only head and shoulders with the face a bit turned to the side. When the subject is facing the camera there is a clear interaction between the subject and the photographer.
On his website, Karsh' life is told in his own words. He grew up in Armenia amongst very difficult circumstances. Subject to terror and violence from the Turks, his family endured hunger and persecution. Amongst all the hatred Karsh learned from his mother not to hate, even as the oppression continued.
"One day, I returned from school, my forehead bleeding. I had been stoned by Turkish boys who tried to take away my only playthings, a few marbles. “Wait,” I told my mother defiantly, “from now on I am the one who will carry stones.” My mother took me in her arms and said, “My son, they do not know what they are doing. However, if you must retaliate — be sure you miss!”
After Karsh and his family fled to Syria, at the age of 17 Karsh was sent to Canada to live with his uncle, who was a photographer. In his generosity he gave him a camera and taught him all about photography and art.
More about his life and work can be read at his website. It is very inspiring for sure!
What I learned from reading about Karsh' life and looking at his portraits is the following:
1. Portrait photography is more than knowing all the technicalities, it is about being willing to get to know as much as possible about the subject that you're portraying and hitting the moment when that authenticity that you've come to know is revealed. The way you can get that authenticity starts with wanting to know the subject, acting upon that, but also knowing in post process which look is most authentic to the person you've come to know.
In this way of working the interaction between the photographer and subject becomes most important, showing a specific aspect of the subject and showing how the photographer has worked and interacted to get that aspect out.
2. In Karsh' notes on his photos I notice a sincere involvement in the subject, a respect and even love. To me that shows that being a photographer is more than having the technical skills, but also having a world view, or philosophy that believes that fullfillment, or maybe even the meaning of a life comes to show through making an image in a specific way. Karsh' images show that he was taught not to hate and that all human being was valuable, regardless them being good or bad.
3. It is okay to use methods to make people look beautiful. Karsh' images are glamorous, show the beauty of a person through their expressions, but definitely also through the lighting and I guess also in the postproduction in the dark room. There is a clear difference between the way women are portrayed. Much less use of harsh direct light, more soft light and rim lighting. Women don't have wrinkles (except mother Teresa and Helen Keller, but okay...) and have their faces evenly lit. The men on the other hand definitely show their wrinkles and are often lit in a difeferent way, from the side that shows more texture, as well.
On this page are a few exmples that are particularly striking.
So now on to my own trials! To get the Karsh' look in my image I decided to use a diffused flash from the side and a reflector on the other side. The reason for that was that I wanted to show highlights and get the same contrasty kind of image as is seen in a lot of the male images. Now I think I maybe should have lit my subject differently since she is a woman and would have been lit with more diffused light by Karsh as well I guess... An other challenge is that I don't have any other lighting gear except for the flash and reflector.
When I took this serie of images I thought I was doing really well, but when looking at them on the computer I see that the composition is just not right and well balanced. Besides that, I miss a bit of authenticity in the look of my friend. We were talking and having a good interaction, but this image is not a good reflection of it.
This image has more contrast and is taken with a different focal length, making the image overall more interesting. I'm still not happy with the expression though and I think the image lacks dynamic.
This image is my final choice. It's not a pose that you find in Karsh' work, but I think the lighting and contrast comes closest to his work. Besides that, the look on the subject's face draws the viewer in and is telling something, it is less dull than the other images. The upward look to the light is a pose that Karsh uses a lot in his images of women and so is the use of the highlights on the eyes of the subject.
Finally, I realize that the image doesn't come close to Karsh' work, but I notice that focusing on the work of an artist helps me to get an idea on how to take different kind of portraits, on discovering new techniques and most of all, just emerge myself in the way other artists got to where they are, how they learnt and were influenced themselves. How they lived and were influenced by their philosophies, the people they met, etc.
Every morning I wake up feeling so fortunate to have the time and possibilities to do this.