Karsh Signature

Yousuf Karsh, master photographer of the 20th century

Yousuf Karsh: Regarding Heroes

The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 2009

'This exhibition of 100 of Karsh’s favorite prints of his favorite subjects celebrates the centenary of the birth of one of the greatest portraitists in the history of photography. It may be said that Karsh, through his portraits, owns our collective visual memory of Winston Churchill, Marian Anderson, Albert Schweitzer, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, and many others.

Yousuf Karsh learned photographic portraiture in the late 1920s, the way 19th century practitioners had: as an apprentice. His concern for the sitter’s character and worth, along with his exquisite manners, at first brought him modest success in the studio in Ottawa, Canada, which he operated from 1932 to 1992. Having become the favorite photographer of Canadian politicians, he was given the assignment to photograph Winston Churchill after one of the Prime Minister’s most famous speeches in December 1941. The defiant and scowling portrait became an instant icon of Britain’s stand against fascism. From that time on, Karsh became famous and a long list of statesmen, artists, musicians, writers, actors, and celebrities who sat before his camera began.

The selection and accompanying catalogue are a critical re-evaluation of Karsh’s artistic development and achievement, referencing aesthetic ideas ranging from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Federico Garcia Lorca, Wallace Stevens and Albert Camus through ideas about the history and technique of photography. The text is also a discussion of the photographer’s admiration of individuals of high achievement and his notion of what constituted a genuine hero, which was affected by his optimistic outlook on society, even in the darkest days of World War II. In the post war period, new styles of portraiture emerged through editorial and fashion photographers working for large magazines. Karsh’s approach and style soon reached its perfection and then did not change radically. He became what might be termed the last of his kind. But, with their engaging lighting and indelible character study, his images became and remain one of the most recognizable signature styles in portrait photography.'

David Travis
Chair and Curator of Photography
The Art Institute of Chicago