Yousuf Karsh was one of my earliest influences. His portraits, much of his work in black and white, were simple, elegant, and deeply human. An Armenian-Canadian, Karsh was born in Turkey in 1908, worked most of his life in Ottawa, and died in 2002, leaving behind a lifetime of beautiful portraits of the leaders of his generation. I think what draws me, still, to Karsh’s work, is the lack of pretense or cleverness; I never get the feeling he’s saying “look at me,” I never get distracted by his craft, and I think that’s one of the marks of a true master.
You can find more of Karsh’s work through the official website here, but I think there’s no substitute for seeing it in print. When I was in rehab a couple of years ago in Ottawa, and learning to walk again, Karsh’s prints loomed large in the hallways. I’d walk past Churchill often, glowering down at me, daring me to complain or give up. His portrait of Schweitzer, above, still moves me, after 25 years of looking at it.
You can get your hands on books of Karsh’s work on Amazon. I recommend Karsh: A Sixty Year Retrospective, Karsh Portraits, and Karsh: Beyond the Camera, is great if you want to read the stories behind his work.
I call this feature Study the Masters because I think really studying – not merely looking at – the works of great photographers, is one of the best ways to learn this craft. Sure, look at the images. But really read them. Interact. Ask questions – why did the photographer choose this particular moment or gesture? What can I learn from the light? How does each image make you feel? What does his body of work say to you? You won’t like it all, but you can learn from it all.
A thanks, too, to reader Bryan Nelson for the reminder that your local library might have many of these books. You don’t have to buy every one of these books (though you wouldn’t know that to see the growing stacks here in my loft.)