- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Canadian photographer simply known as Karsh built his career on shooting portraits of what he called “people of consequence.” His images of American presidents, European royalty, religious leaders, movie stars, pioneering scientists and other headliners often became the most familiar semblances of their subjects.

Visitors to “Karsh at 100” at the Embassy of Canada will probably remember his 1957 photo of writer Ernest Hemingway in a turtleneck sweater, the most recognizable of the 28 artist portraits in the exhibit. Honoring the centennial of the photographer’s birth, the show is just big enough to familiarize viewers with his trademark theatrical style.

“He was the perfect public relations portraitist,” says photography historian Geoffrey Batchen in the film “Karsh Is History” playing on a video monitor in the gallery.

For aspiring stars of the post-World War II decades, being “Karshed” meant they had made it.

Yousuf Karsh, who died at age 93 in 2002, viewed portraiture as reaffirming the public perception of the sitters rather than as exposing a hidden side of their personality.

Mr. Karsh didn’t want to change people’s minds about their favorite celebrities.

In the exhibit, his portrait of Joan Crawford is Hollywood glamour without a hint of her Mommie Dearest dark side. The perfectly made-up actress in matching skirt and stole beams into the camera while holding a cigarette.

Mr. Karsh could reinforce his client’s idealized image simply through the placement of the hands.

In his portrait of Jasper Johns, the painter holds his fingers on his forehead, indicating the intellectual bent of his art. Fashion designer Christian Dior, his eyebrow arched, presses a finger to his lips to signal the quiet tastefulness of his couture. Pianist Glenn Gould sits at the keyboard, his hands raised in anticipation of striking a chord.

In addition to such calculated poses, Mr. Karsh often used props and settings to reinforce the subject’s occupation and accomplishments. This technique was later adopted by celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz who talks about the Canadian in the film, noting, “Karsh did everybody … he [even] photographed the pope.”

One of the more promotional shots in the exhibit shows Georgia O’Keeffe sitting in her desert studio. She is surrounded by motifs from her paintings — a skull with antlers, a piece of gnarled tree and adobe walls — as if shilling for her art.

Similarly, sculptor Alexander Calder stands under one of his mobiles. Bauhaus architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe peers through sheets of glass, his construction material of choice. Consistent throughout the show is Mr. Karsh’s treatment of his subjects as actors on a stage through selective spotlighting. French author Francois Mauriac, who encouraged Elie Wiesel to write his Holocaust memoir “Night,” is pictured in blackness with only his profile outlined in light. British philosopher Bertrand Russell, holding his trademark pipe, appears completely in shadow like a paper silhouette.

Mr. Karsh’s dramatic style stemmed from his experience with stage lighting as a member of a theater group in Ottawa. While working in the Canadian capital, the Turkish-born photographer met the politicians who would become his clients and help establish his career.

He opened his Ottawa portrait studio in 1932 and soon became known for his sharp, strongly lit portraits of visiting dignitaries.

His 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill set him on the path to shooting the powerful and famous. Given only a couple of minutes to do his job, Mr. Karsh reportedly angered the British prime minister by pulling his cigar from his lips before snapping the picture. The resulting photo of a stern Churchill, his head thrust forward, became iconic for its personification of the British determination to defeat Hitler.

The heroic quality of Mr. Karsh’s portraits matched the optimistic, postwar era. He shot his black-and-white images using a large-format camera and printed them himself in the darkroom, methods now considered antiquated in the candid digital age.

His skillful lighting and close-up views underscore a feeling of monumentality in his portraits, as evident throughout the exhibit.

The image of Ansel Adams makes the landscape photographer look as expansive as one of his mountain views with a large portion of the picture taken up by Mr. Adams’ dark-shirted torso.

A photo of sculptor Henry Moore invites a comparison between the artist and the large, abstract sculpture shown in the background. Caressed by one of the photographer’s perfectly aimed lights, Mr. Moore’s luminous face looks like it, too, is sculpted of marble.

Singer Marian Anderson resembles a saint as she gazes upward to heaven. Pop artist Andy Warhol advertises his creative talent as he holds a house painter’s brush up to his cheek. The bristles look as artificial as the strands of his wig.

Each portrait carefully constructs the sitter’s image as personifying greatness, without any sign of the struggle required of climbing the ladder to fame.

WHAT: “Karsh at 100: Portraits of Artists”

WHERE: Embassy of Canada, 501 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday through Dec. 18


PHONE: 202/682-1740

WEB SITE: www.canadainternational.gc.ca/washington

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