Yousuf Karsh goes beyond celebrity

By Ali Abel

Yousuf Karsh received his first camera when he was a young child. His uncle entered his very first print in a photography contest, and Yousuf won first-prize. Ever since that day, he has photographed the men and women who influence our lives.

The selection of portraits, which is on display in the Illingworth Kerr Gallery at the Alberta College of Art & Design, is a selection of Karsh’s finest portraits of political leaders, artists, celebrities, and writers. Many of the names and faces, we’ve seen in magazines, books, and newspapers for over 60 years.

Some of Karsh’s subjects include: Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, Pablo Picasso, Helen Keller, Ernest Hemmingway, Marshall McLuhan, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and Fidel Castro. In these portraits, Karsh captures the essence of each person, as they are in reality, and not as they are portrayed in the media. By looking into the eyes of each subject, you can almost see their souls, who they really are while the captions beside each print aid the viewer in further understanding the subjects.

Karsh is not afraid to show the minor imperfections of such high-class people. This brings them all back down to Earth as he portrays them as real people, not just as celebrities. Although known for photographing the famous, Karsh states, "My chief joy is to photograph the great in heart, in mind and in spirit, whether they be famous or humble."

Karsh is truly an amazing photographer, very dedicated to achieving perfection within his work. His photographs look almost like paintings, until you notice the very intricate detail in the clothing, hair and even faces. The texture of the clothes is so intense, it’s as if the subject is actually sitting right there in front of you. There are not many detailed or complex backdrops, and the main focus is always on the celebrity. The dark backdrops and dark clothing help the viewer to focus on what is really important in the print–the subject’s face. There is nothing unnecessary in the photograph to draw away from that one important aspect.

In a few of the prints, it looks as if Karsh caught the subjects off guard doing something they love. The smoke from a cigarette in the occasional print adds an air of mystery. In almost all of the prints, the viewer gets the feeling that the person inside of the photograph is watching him or her.

As his wife states in a film also shown at the gallery, "he has a yearning in his eyes, a continual search…" Karsh has found what he was looking for in the photographs in the display. He has portrayed these celebrities as they are when out from under the spotlight. He has brought out their souls and made the real person accessible to everyone.

The Yousuf Karsh exhibit runs until Feb. 26.