Yousuf Karsh

Audrey Hepburn, 1956

Next I have decided to look at the work of American/Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh as he was one of the great portrait photographers of the 20th century and I love his work. He is well known for his compassionate portraits of figures from world politics, literature, science, arts and entertainment. His work particularly interests me because of his own empathy and perceptiveness that allowed him to gain incredible rapport with his subjects. I really admire that he chose to photograph personalities that influenced people's lives at that time, showing them with great insight and understanding. Karsh revealed his subject's character in his portraits in a very attentive manner, illuminating his subjects in his images which has often led to them becoming definitive portraits of the people in them. 

Albert Einstein, 1948

"Character, like a photograph, develops in darkness"
Karsh's style particularly interests me in how it brings out the subject further in his portrait photographs. One thing that is characteristic of many of Karsh's more well known photographs is his use of a black background and low key lighting. These lighting effects are similar to a lot of the hollywood glamour lighting that was being used at that time, however Karsh used it in an incredibly atmospheric way, that reveals his subjects in a very sensitive manner. 

"There is a brief moment when all there is in a man's mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record." 

One characteristic of Karsh's work that has particularly stood out to me in building up my ideas for my portraiture photographs, is his use of hands within a frame and focus on them in his photographs. In reading about this element of his work in the book 'Karsh: A Sixty Year Retrospective', I now realise the importance of hands in photographs and that they are something I need to be particularly aware of. In terms of how they work within the frame of an image and what they add to it, and also why I would not want them in a photograph.

Looking at Karsh's work has made me much more aware of how much hands can add in a portrait photograph as well as a detail shot, in revealing clues to the entire personality of a person. As hands reveal mood, attitude, tension and even little habits some people have. Therefore being aware of this could reveal even more about my subjects in my portraits of them. Karsh noted that he would never set out just to photograph a person's hands however he felt that they complement a whole image. 

Karsh's environmental portraits particularly of artists are some of my favourites he has taken. As his intimate lighting style almost changes the setting in the image into this private world of the artist we are allowed to peer into through their portrait. Which I think is a really special quality to his photographs and I especially love the way he captures artist's immersed in their own work. My favourite photograph is the one below of German Painter Josef Albers (1966), as I think the composition is just brilliant with the frame matching the shape of his square paintings. Really conveying how Alber's art is an extension of himself and how he thinks. With these layers created in the background by the wall in the foreground breaking up the view of the next room behind Albers, much like the layers he creates with coloured shapes on top of one another in his own paintings. 

Karsh: A Sixty Year Restrospective
Looking at Yousuf Karsh's work has given me a great deal of considerations to now make in taking my own portrait photographs. His level of perceptiveness in treating his subject and aesthetic decisions in his photographs I find incredibly clever and it has given me a lot to think about in how I compose and represent my subjects in my images. I also want to work more on showing my subject's character more through their hands and the environments I take photographs of them in. As I want to carefully present personality traits and the interests and passions of my subjects in my photographs of them. 

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