This is the fifth in my series of “Photographers You Should Know About.” The first four appear below in no particular order – Bresson, Edward Weston, Lange and Strand.

Yousuf Karsh lived from 1908 until 2002. He was the Ansel Adams of portrait photography. It’s pretty easy to spot a Karsh. Like images from Adams, they just stand out.

Karsh worked extensively in Canada running a portrait studio. But it was his 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill that made him famous. While I’ve always been somewhat put off by the fact that some photographers become famous because they photograph famous people, that’s not the case with Mr. Karsh. His work is epic. He managed to bring the real personality of his subjects out across the film plane.

He knew how to use studio lights long before there was any sort of lighting manual or Creative Live or Strobist.

He saw himself as a person’s who job it was to unwrap the real person sitting in front of him. Many consider him the most famous portrait photographer of all time. Perhaps looking at Karsh’s own words gives insight into why…

“The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize. – Yousuf Karsh”

“It should be the aim of every photographer to make a single exposure that shows everything about the subject. I have been told that my portrait of Churchill is an example of this. – Yousuf Karsh”

“I try to photograph people’s spirits and thoughts. As to the soul-taking by the photographer, I don’t feel I take away, but rather that the sitter and I give to each other. It becomes an act of mutual participation. – Yousuf Karsh”

Karsh went on to photograph hundreds of prominent figures. His use of black & white portraits lit by studio strobes formulated the basis of acceptable professional portrature for decades. If you want to be a great portrait artist, learn all you can about Mr. Karsh and study his work. It will change you.


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