We were quite excited to have the opportunity to see the Yousuf Karsh exhibition, at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, recently. I was familiar with several of Karsh's portraits, but wasn't prepared for the huge number of images that were on display that afternoon! As we've progressed through our first term on black and white film printing, I was anxious to see what techniques I could recognize from Karsh's work.
After reading the info cards on the first 10 or 15 images, I changed my approach a little for this assignment. I slowly scanned all the photos on display, making notes on the ones that "jumped out" at me as I passed by. From there, I narrowed down my choice to one photo that seemed to hold my attention and that demonstrated, to me, the widest range of use of darkroom voodoo, that we've started to perform on our own prints at school. My choice was the portrait of George Bernard Shaw.
I knew a bit about Shaw from school and television, but was immediately impressed how Karsh managed to portray Shaw's professional attributes in a single image. There are many technical and compositional aspects to this image that caught my attention. Among them were:
1. The way the subject has been lit, overall, draws you into the image right away. There is a flow to the layout that leads the viewer directly to the subject's face. It is in this area where we see that Karsh has taken great care to give us the highest range of tones, culminating on the subjects dark eyes, peering out from under that tangled nest of white eyebrows. I think this treatment adds to the wry and whimsical nature of the subject's character.
2. In general, Karsh's work is usually dark and moody. This does not come across as mysterious or dangerous, but rather, it allows Karsh to control and reveal specific traits about his subjects to the viewer.
I appreciate the way Karsh dodges and burns certain areas of his subject and their surrounding environment. Shaw's tweed jacket is separated from the dark background above his left shoulder by a halo of light, giving more dimension to his subject and support to his position in the chair. There's even a small bright area running along the top of his right shoulder which further adds to this separation.
3. The arm of the chair has been treated to additional dodging which emphasizes the contrast between the top edge detail and the darker front/side view, which has been burnt in so that this area drops off completely, blending into the black background. This provides a solid base on which to support Shaw's left arm and elbow. This seating position creates a dynamic tension as Shaw places his body weight on the arm of the chair. This position is further emphasized by his leaning back into the chair, almost pushing himself into the back. His elbow extending beyond the 2 dimensional chair arm adds an almost 3D effect to the image.
4. I imagine that Karsh decided to tone down Shaw's suit, overall, which resulted in the viewer's eye being drawn to the brighter and more contrasty face of Shaw. Karsh has protected the highlighted areas of Shaw's forehead, nose, cheeks and beard for this purpose. Shaw, in turn, locks onto the viewer's gaze with his piercing eyes, in return.
5. Shaw's hands appear to have been dodged by Karsh as well. Since Shaw is a writer, it seems appropriate that these "tools of the trade" be more emphasized to tell a bit more about the subject.
6. There is a nice balance between the darkened background in the upper left hand corner of the photo, and in the opposite bottom, right hand corner. This angle of darkness dovetails nicely with the angle at which Shaw is reclining in his chair. There is a gentle "S" curve which runs from the front corner of the chair arm, up Shaw's arm, around to his shoulder and points us to Shaw's face with an implied line.
7. I have previously noted the special attention given to highlighting Shaw's hands and face in this portrait. Compositionally, I appreciate Karsh's method of connecting these two inseparable features of Shaw's talents as an insightful writer by positioning his spectacles in his right hand, yet connecting them with a strong leading line of the rope/chain attached to the spectacles and his torso (close to his heart, perhaps).
8. Karsh's positioning of Shaw in the chair also closely follows the classic Rule of Thirds, by placing his hands in the lower left quadrant and balancing that with the placement of Shaw's head in the upper right hand quadrant. These two elements remind the viewer of Shaw's ability to see/observe his world around him, to analyze and conceive his ideas for writing , with his ability to write out these ideas and concepts with his own twist on the situations.
9. I do have one question regarding Karsh's decision in how this photo is laid out. With his ability to lighten and darken many features throughout almost any image, I don't understand why he left that lone vertical line in the scene that runs from slightly behind Shaw's left shoulder, up to the top of the image, and beyond. I don't feel that it is connecting to or adding to any other part of the story of this photo, but rather it seems to cut a strip off the right side of the image and create an unecessary distraction for the viewer. Just part of the observation process.
I found this exhibition to be very inspiring and left me wanting to try some of Karsh's techniques in my own work. Perhaps we'll be able to get our hands on some fibre-based paper in the new year . . . (wink, wink, nudge, nudege!)