“On the stormy New Year’s Eve of 1925, the liner Versailles reached Halifax from Beirut. After a voyage of twenty-nine days, her most excited passenger in the steerage class must have been a seventeen-year-old Armenian boy who spoke little French, and less English. I was that boy.”Yousuf Karsh – from “A Brief Biography” on karsh.org – ©All Rights Reserved
This is how Yousuf Karsh introduces himself in his biography. At the time he was just a young lad dreaming about a medical career, running away from the Armenian genocide. Later in his life, he discovered photography, which opened up many possibilities throughout his career.
The work of Mr. Karsh can be expressed in many ways, starting from his dedication as a professional portraitist to something much bigger, related to the essence and the spirit of the subjects set in front of his camera.
In fact, the success of Yousuf Karsh is not a random case guided by faith or some entity’s will, it’s just the result of studies and improvements he acquired thanks to the help of his uncle Nakash and one of the 20th Century renowned Boston photographers: John H. Garo. This distinct portrayer, well-known in the US for his huge portfolio, was a fellow Armenian of Karsh, and probably also for his roots he quickly became a focal point in his inspiration.
As a wise counselor, Garo recommended Karsh to study the great masters of Fine Arts and paintings, more specifically Rembrandt and Velázquez. These intense evening sessions trained his eye, so he could easily discern different kinds of lighting not just technically, but also poetically. That’s how he created his visual language.
It was all part of a process that made a step-by-step career, which brought him to take pictures of some of the most important people on the planet. He wanted to photograph the great-minded, the personalities of the century, and those who made the difference by shining their energy, their power, or, simply, their majestic presence.
For every subject, he had a pose, and for every pose, he had a meaning related to the subject. As a math formula, he captured the very quintessence of every human being.
Let’s take this picture of Winston Churchill as an example.
Churchill at the time was the man who guided his country to victory during WW2, the one beloved by the crowds and the royals. His persona was huge, as well as his responsibilities.
Karsh didn’t just capture the man himself, but also all these characteristics; and he did it his own way by removing the almost permanent cigar from the mouth of the prime minister against his will. This move, this audacity provoked Churchill to the point you can feel the vibes of challenge. The smart move made by the photographer allowed the subject to show his true nature, presenting his soul in the most naked way possible. Yousuf Karsh, every day, through his pictures, is teaching us how to understand the power of a subject and apply it to the picture.
Karsh is explaining without muttering a single word, how to empathize with the person we have in front of us both during a photo session and in life, giving the deserved respect.