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Karsh is History

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  February 3, 2012 08:59 AM

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Surfing channels last night, I stumbled upon a PBS show about Yousuf Karsh, the famed portrait photographer whose iconic images of the famous (Winston Churchill, Audrey Hepburn, Ernest Hemingway) in the 1940s and '50s helped elevate photographic portraiture to an art form.

I had never seen this 2010 documentary on Karsh, written and directed by Joseph Hillel. For fans, "Karsh is History: Yousuf Karsh and Portrait Photography" lingers satisfyingly on dozens of his photos: Gerald Ford, Cecil B. DeMille, Charlton Heston, John F. Kennedy, Mikhail Gorbachev, Francois Mitterand, Charles de Gaulle, Marian Anderson, Clark Gable, Lauren Bacall, Peter Lorre, Joan Crawford, the Marx Brothers, Angela Lansbury, Bette Davis, Ted Kennedy, Pierre Trudeau, Jessye Norman, Ingrid Bergman, Helen Keller, Kurt Weill, Gina Lollobrigida, George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams, Graham Greene, Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies. From 1936 to 1993, Karsh photographed 11 US presidents and eight Canadian prime ministers.

The film speaks approvingly of Karsh's understanding and control of both natural and artificial light, his innate sense of composition, and his use of only the highest quality paper and other film developing materials that helped him achieve the high contrast between deep blacks and bright whites - also a hallmark of Ansel Adams' work.

But the documentary also provides an unstinting look at the historical meaning of Karsh's work. Most interviewed in the film praised his method of reading up on his subjects, chatting with them during the shoot, getting to know them, and then posing them in ways that captured some aspect of their life or personality. But Geoffrey Batchen, an art historian at the CUNY Graduate Center who specializes in photography, had a different view: At a time in American history when the emergence of photography coincided with the emergence of celebrity, Karsh was successful because he gave his sitters exactly what they wanted: A way to promote themselves.

He was, Batchen says, the perfect publicist, providing his subjects with "a smooth, heroic, idealized public image." There's nothing wrong with that, Batchen points out: Wedding photographers don't look for images that reveal family tensions or speak to the deeper meaning of relationships. But his comments do change the way you view Karsh photographs.

(You may know that Karsh studied in Boston and also lived here at the end of his life. The Museum of Fine Arts has 196 of his photographs in its permanent collection.)

If you want to catch the film it's being broadcast again at 4:30 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday) on WGBX (Channel 44 in Boston) and at 3 a.m. Sunday (if you have a DVR) on WGBH and WGBH2.

The documentary winds down with a bit of a lament about the loss of the art of film photography and the argument that it's so easy to take a digital image today that people shoot far too many photos, and shoot far too many that stay in cameras, on hard drives, or on websites. It's so easy to shoot, it says, that many people don't know what's a good photograph anymore.

Do you agree?


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