Debuting last summer as part of Festival Karsh, a summer-long celebration organized by the Canada Science and Technology Museum and the Portrait Gallery of Canada, a program now contained within Library and Archives Canada, Karsh: Image Maker is an extensive tribute celebrating the centenary of Armenia-born, Ottawa-based photographer Yousef Karsh's birth.
Image credit: Yousef Karsh, Winston Churchill 1941. Gelatin silver photograph
Standing as the premiere exhibition in the AGA's new second floor gallery space, the show highlights how important it remains for regional, and certainly national, acknowledgment of portraitures and photography in shaping our cultural identities.
Designed as an interactive bilingual exhibition, Karsh: Image Maker gives prominence to the photographic tools used as well as Karsh's portraits that span the bulk of the 20th century. As an internationally celebrated portrait photographer, Karsh, like many photographers of his generation, profess to seek that "elusive moment of truth." But if you compare and contrast every photographer who's ever been after the truth, from Cartier-Bresson to Sally Mann to Nan Goldin, it becomes clear how subjective the notion of truth really is and how their truth reveals more about the photographer than anything else.
From Thomas Church to Jean Paul Riopelle, to legends like Cecil B. Demille and Winston Churchill, Karsh carefully crafted his portraits to reflect his subjects' iconic stature. The celebrity factor may be what continues to be heralded, but this was before people were famous for just being famous, and this fact overshadows an underlying credence Karsh sought in those who contributed some form of mass cultural significance.
The archival typewritten documents with hand-written marginalia are fascinating to note that Karsh had an ongoing wish list titled, "Important Personalities Yet To be Photographed For Possible Inclusion in the Book." Going after people with larger than life personalities like Ernest Hemingway, Jacques Cousteau, and Diego Rivera, Karsh had an ongoing interest in capturing writers, musicians, dancers, political figures and movie stars, all reputable for their contemporary achievements and translating their cultural stature into an emblematic portrait.
Image credit: Yousef Karsh, Pablo Casals 1954. Gelatin silver photograph
From over 15 000 portrait sittings, Karsh noted one of his favorite photographs was of French cellist Pablo Casals, playing inside a rotunda of an old stone church. Vastly different from the majority of his well-known mid-frame shots and intimate close-ups, his image of Casals captures the cellist in full, sitting with his back turned and his instrument in hand, existing in perfect harmony with the curvature of space and light surrounding him.
Karsh, who began with photographing for theatre productions and experimenting in highly stylized abstract photography before establishing himself as a technically superb portraitist, undoubtedly preferred the large format method of staged photography. The only regret of this exhibition is the mummification of Karsh's large format 4 x 5 method, a heavy, laborious process involving complex alchemy, but one that still exists today. As it stands, large format and the medium of film is becoming a specialized art form as dark rooms continue to disappear from art schools and fewer artists can access this technique. The exhibition's digital reproduction of Karsh's large format process sent instantly to your email is a fun idea, but it is arguable that large format film and digital photography are in fact two different mediums, and an exhibition that pays tribute and educates viewers on the art and science of photography would pay more respect to its nuances.
Karsh is History, an award-winning documentary screens Friday Feb. 26 at 7pm at the AGA's ledcor theatre. Admission is free.
*First published in Vue Weekly