Karsh Exhibition Talk notes, 1999
Sontag quote, the blurriest photograph of Shakespeare would be a greater object than the most detailed drawing.
Karsh’s portraits have the verisimilitude of the photograph, but they are also overtly artificial as well, obviously highly lit and studio based, they therefore also refer to the grandeur and tradition and gravitas of traditional painted portraits. In the enlarged portraits the epidermal texture and microscopic detail becomes equivalent to the oily, lubricous gloss of the painted portrait.
His style: a general low toned flat chiaroscuro, accented by a high, key light, focussed from high above and behind the sitter. (Or sometimes a high window). Often a light is placed behind he sitter to give them a subtle penumbra which lifts them off the background. (We can see this lighting set up reflected in Eisenhower’s globe, Le Courbousier’s glasses, and Laurence Olivier’s Whisky glass.
This gives a general authoritative background, from which the sitter literally shines forth.
It also guarantees that the image will leap off the page, even if the printing is quite poor.
It also adds a real facial tactility to the images we are aware of the texture of skin and hair, pores and bristles.
Karsh’s subject is power, he was fascinated by it. The catalogue asks: are portraits windows to the soul, or masks of personality. I don’t find this either/or formulation particularly useful, I prefer to think of these portraits as almost collaborations between photographer and sitter, a theatrical performance where an agreed embodiment of a persona is enacted within the photographers mis-en-scene. Although Karsh would often proclaim that he wanted to capture that brief moment when the subject’s mask slips, he also once admitted that he was “influenced by the by the public image …. by the living legend”. Nothing would stop him from creating an image of what he saw to be the public greatness of the sitter
Karsh set up his lights and his large format camera, before hand, and then invited the sitter in. He was well known for his charming manner, and his general amiable complicity with the wishes of his clients. After taking several, or many exposure, within the relatively tight spatial constraints of the ‘stage’ set up by the lighting, the session was complete.
Karsh’s portraits are the opposite of snapshots. The sitter appears to have temporarily interrupted their labours of changing the world, and to have entered some higher temporal plane: they appear to be out of the flow of everyday time, and embedded in transcendental, eternal history.
As I have said the key to all of Karsh’s portraits is the high key light.
There are symbolic associations of this high key light:
the light of divinity, inspiration, vision.
The other two elements Karsh always pays attention to are the hands and the eyes.
In the eyes we can see a taxonomy of Karsh’s idea of the types of power:
Eyes can be staring back at the camera if the sitter is a ‘defiant doer’ : Churchill
They can be just looking slightly to the side of the viewer if they are a ‘fantasising dreamer’ but kind and good: Warhol, Kenny, Kowabata
They can be staring up and off if the are a ‘visionary dreamer’: Kennedy, King
They can be closed altogether if the sitter is on another spiritual plane altogether: Ravi Shankar, Carl Jung
Or they can be staring at their work as if pre-occupied by the burdens of their greatness: Eisenhower
Hands are always doing something: holding a tool, cradling a chin, even in repose hands are still in dialogue with eyes, signifying serenity. Hands, like the face, for Karsh also bear inscriptions, of age, delicacy, work. Sometimes gesture can have specific intertextual references. Sister Kenny’s hand is extended in a Christ—like gesture drawn from popular Catholic iconography. It is ironic that lately Sister Kenny’s work with polio has been thoroughly discredited, and her personal ‘saintliness’ questioned.
Karsh also used the background to ad extra information to the portrait.
Sometimes this seem very forced and banal, as in the line of telephones behind Marshal McLuhan, the famous theorist of mass media. At other times it is very economical: the plain white background Sir Edmund Hilary, his wind blown hair, and the toggles on his windcheater all subtly recreate mount Everest within a lighting studio.
Another occasional trick of Karsh was to casualise his sitters, perhaps to signify that we were closer to the ‘real’ person, and to draw attention to their bodies out of the familiar uniform of the suit. Jumpers were particularly popular, perhaps because the also gave a pleasing texture: Einstein, Hemmingway etc.
Winston Churchill on the cover of Saturday Night in 1942. Became instantly popular, became iconic of Churchill and British bulldog pluck. In this photo we have the seamless integration of Churchill’s physical bulk, his theatrical expression of angry resolve, and the intertextual reference to the bulldog in his face. The story goes that Karsh got this by suddenly taking away Churchill’s cigar (this sudden intervention is very atypical of Karsh, who normally manipulated his sitters by collusion, complements, complicity and charm), ironically, without his personal political trademark he became more of a suprapolitical, national trademark.
Karsh was commissioned by illustrated magazines like Life, and advertising agencies like J. Walter Thompson. The images only began to migrate from the mass media to the museum and gallery in the 1980s. The use of his work migrated from the media reportage to a more ceremonial use, on medallions, stamps etc. Some of the images seem to contain this end use within their very construction. For instance the shot of the three Apollo 11 astronauts is designed almost like a logo.
Karsh’s classic cold war portraits belong to a particular mass media period. Power brokers were aware of, and masters, of media image making as never before. The photographic image was powerful, but it was controlled by the powerful. The situation has changed now. We no longer are familiar with our leaders through their idealised, legendary portrayal as grand historical actors separated from the flux of time. We now see them, visually, going through every agonistic paroxysm that goes with the process of leadership: every chance grimace, blink or stumble is shot by the attendant press pack and used by newspapers to add editorial colour. For every studio portrait of a noble John Howard we see a thousand newspaper images of him looking querulous, tremulous, or petulant. For every glamour shot of a movie star we see a thousand paparazzi telephoto lens shots of them doing something they’ll come to regret.
Karsh’s portraits are absolutely public portraits of public personas. But now the boundaries of pubic and private have eroded for the great and the powerful. Kennedy’s White House sexual escapades belong to history, Clinton’s much less audacious sexual escapades belonged instantaneously to public circulation. The powerful claim that they have become the property of the photographers, whereas in Karsh’s day he was most certainly the faithful servant of the powerful. The obvious example is Princess Diana, literally shot to death by photographers. Her visual place in historical memory not a regal studio portrait, but a pornographic kaleidoscopic melange of the thousands and thousands of images we have seen of her and her car wreck and her funeral.
The image of the 1960s is polarised: the great iconic images of great men on the one hand, and the great journalistic icons on the other: the dead student at kent State University, the napalmed child in Vietnam. These poles have now collapsed.
For this reason it is hard to imagine Karsh’s style of portraiture having any contemporary currency, and certainly the more contemporary images in this exhibition are the weakest. Few leaders could now be ‘Karshed’ and have the elevated charisma of greatness to wear the mantle. I can only think of two, Nelson Mandela and Saddam.