Considered an eminence for connoisseurs of photography, Yousuf Karsh created captivating and mystifying portraits that revealed a depth of character and an incomparable aesthetic, establishing a canon in the practice of portraiture. Karsh’s signature lighting virtuosity and his penetrating gaze captured the spirit of some of the world’s most influential characters. These sitters included Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., Frank Lloyd Wright, Pablo Picasso, and Audrey Hepburn, to name a select few. Consequently, Karsh’s photographs helped immortalize and expand in his subjects an aura of magnificence, an effect first referred to as being “Karshed” by Field Marshall Montgomery.
“To make enduring photographs, one must learn to see with the mind’s eye, for the heart and the mind are the true lens of the camera.”
The Early Years
Born in Mardin, Armenia, in 1908, Yousuf Karsh experienced a difficult childhood. His family fled the beauty of their native landscape, fleeing the violence of Turkish persecution towards Armenians in the mid-1910s. “My recollections of those days comprise a strange mixture of blood and beauty, persecution, and peace.” After settling in Syria for some time, Karsh’s father would eventually send then 16-year-old Yousuf to live under his uncle’s care in Canada.
The Beginning of a Photographic Legacy
Yousuf Karsh would adapt well in the West, finding a calling in the practice of photography, learning the profession in his uncle’s photography studio, and thus beginning a career that captivated him entirely. Karsh later moved to Boston to apprentice with established photographer John H. Garo; it was under Garo’s guidance that Karsh developed his technical prowess and gained access to famous creative personalities.
In 1956, Karsh traveled to Abiquiu in New Mexico to photograph renowned visual artist, Georgia O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe, who created iconic and original contributions to the American Modernist movement, would sit for the photographer and present in the following picture, her highly effective self-crafted public persona.
“To photograph this remarkable artist I went to Abiquiu, New Mexico, where O’Keeffe had settled ten years earlier. Her sparse adobe home with wide windows overlooking the mountain was almost completely devoid of ornaments. I expected to find in her personality some of the poetic intensity of her paintings. I found intensity, but the austere intensity of dedication to her work. Her friend and fellow artist Anita Pollitzer says that she is so in love with the things she does that she subordinates all else to win time and freedom to paint. I decided to photograph her as another friend had described her: “Georgia, her pure profile calm, clear; her sleek black hair drawn swiftly back into a tight knot at the nape of her neck; the strong white hands, touching and lifting everything, even the boiled eggs, as if they were living things – sensitive, slow-moving hands, coming out of the black and white, always this black and white.”
Revealing the Essence of O’Keeffe
In this remarkable photograph, Karsh captures the intensity and stoic character of O’Keeffe. His work was often stark and sparse. His pursuit was neither to glamorize or adorn but instead to probe and reveal the essence of his sitter as honestly as possible. Few photographers have so successfully memorialized their subjects. In his picture of O’Keeffe, Karsh shows the iconic quality of this progressive, trailblazing woman. Her “less is more” aesthetic, initially recognized by Karsh after entering the artist’s home, epitomized her minimalist taste and is reflected in her portrait; her pose heightening her enigmatic persona.
It was in her home in New Mexico where, captured by a cadre of then promising photographers, she cemented her reputation as a legendary modernist artist. Through the impression of Karsh’s image and other photographs, O’Keeffe became a symbol of independence and of the American West, of rugged self-determination and unwavering devotion to an art practice she embraced so thoroughly.
One of the Greatest Portraitists of the 20th Century
So significant was Karsh’s impact on the world of photography that upon his demise, The Metropolitan Museum of Art described him as one of the greatest portrait photographers of the twentieth century.