Capturing Celebrity


Karsh Sheds Glorious Light on Yesteryear’s Faces of Fame

The Canadian Embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue is a monument of light. Its white granite exterior gleams brilliantly under the Washington sun, and its towering windows funnel those rays into the building’s expansive lobby.

But step into the recessed space just off the first floor, and the light dissipates into a softly dim gallery of cool. Here, the National Gallery of Canada has mounted the exhibition “Karsh at 100: Portraits of Artists.” The small collection of 28 black-and-white photographs celebrates some of Yousuf Karsh’s most enduring portraits. A virtual who’s-who of painters, actors, fashion designers, musicians and writers from the 20th century, the exhibition renders such outsize personalities as Ernest Hemingway, Georgia O’Keeffe and Joan Crawford in gloriously intimate detail.

But instead of stripping away the gloss of fame, Karsh amplifies it. An Armenian native who immigrated to Ottawa early in life, Karsh spent a lifetime reverently capturing celebrity through his lens. And in many of these photographs, he manages to uncover some new detail or mood in images of people who had been photographed hundreds of times.

We’ve all heard the name Picasso, for example, all of our lives. But how many times have you looked at — really studied — the man, himself? Karsh allows us to gaze at the now immortal painter, who stares straight ahead, looking like a tightly coiled ball of energy, replete with a cigarette, of course.

Andy Warhol — the Pittsburgh-born artist who manipulated fame brilliantly with his enigmatic statements and poses in 1970s New York — strikes an unusually hammy pose as he half-pouts, half-smiles while raising a paintbrush to his face.

Karsh captures Hemingway in Havana at his vital, bearish best. The iconic writer’s shot is closely cropped, imbuing the image with his immense physicality, his outsize humanity etched across his weathered face.

O’Keeffe, by contrast, is photographed in repose, most likely at her remote Ghost Ranch retreat in New Mexico. Ever elusive and often cryptic, O’Keeffe’s gaze is slightly askance as shadows dance across the studio and just a hint of light intrudes from a window.

Similarly matching personality to subject, a photograph of dancer Martha Graham is all sinew and coil. The dance diva’s gaze suggests nothing that approaches friendly, but it reminds us that hers is hard work and not just anyone — in fact pretty much no one — could do it as well as she.

“‘Portraits of Artists’ shows Karsh’s creativity in capturing the artistic character of his subjects,” said curator Ann Thomas of the National Gallery of Canada. “The subjects are complex and playful, often combining the creators and their artwork in a lively visual relationship.”

Yet Karsh — who died in 2002 at 93 — never let that lively relationship overshadow the deep sense of reverence he showed his subjects. Part of Karsh’s brilliance was that he photographed people as we would want to believe they were, not necessarily as they were. His interpretations, flawlessly rendered on silvery paper, allow us to luxuriate in the seemingly untouchable personas of those we once worshiped — and still can.

About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.