Karsh Signature

Yousuf Karsh, master photographer of the 20th century

Exhibition of 27 portraits of artists

The Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island, 2009

'This exhibition celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Yousuf Karsh (Canadian, born Armenia, 1908-2002), one of the most admired portrait photographers of the twentieth century. More than 15,000 sittings took place in front of his camera--from ordinary citizens to such influential figures such as Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. He made a concerted effort to record the century’s luminaries, especially those in the arts, the group with whom he was most comfortable. A special selection of twenty-seven photographs of visual artists and designers comprise this exhibition, all promised gifts to The RISD Museum from the artist’s widow, Estrellita Karsh,

Karsh’s early experience photographing an amateur theater group in Ottawa, Ontario--where he operated his studio from 1931-1992--inspired his signature style. The dramatic stage lighting was a revelation to him, having worked only with natural light during his apprenticeship. Using strong light to create high-contrast planes of lights and darks, he sculpted enduring views of his subjects.

Karsh’s portraits are collaborations. He was known for his charming manner and ability to connect with his sitters and his portraits reveal as much about Karsh’s admiration for his subjects as they do about the subjects themselves. Before his sittings, he researched his subjects and planned his shots, but he was always alert to the opportunity of the moment and did not rely upon a single portrait convention. For example, initially intending to photograph Jasper Johns with one of his paintings, he instead tightly framed his penetrating gaze to better capture his cerebral nature. For his portrait of Josef Albers, he posed the artist seated in profile creating a geometry within the frame that echoed Albers’s celebrated Homage to a Square painting behind him. In the nearly full-length portrait of Russell Wright, the artist gazes out a window in a domestic setting apt for the dishware and furniture he designed.

Karsh’s sittings were also recorded in a diary and his words sometimes accompany the images to provide greater insight into his collaborations. Many of his texts are included with the portraits on view.'

Jan Howaard
Curator, Prints, Drawings and Photographs
Rhode Island School of Design