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Does Karsh Need a Reassessment?

Authored by: Andrew Kear on August 27, 2009

I’ve been reading curator David Travis’ catalogue Yousuf Karsh: Regarding Heroes, which will be available to the public when the exhibition arrives at the WAG this fall. When I first heard about Travis’ exhibition, and the fact that its purpose was, in part, to “reassess” the Armenian-Canadian photographer’s output I was sceptical. Within the art world, especially as it pertains to historical shows, the prefix “re” is often an early indicator of a curator’s heavy-hand. Reassessment, reappraisal, reinterpretation, and revision are great so long as I can leave an exhibition feeling that the original assessment, appraisal, interpretation, and vision, logically implied, have been properly and fairly understood from the start.

From what I’ve read, Travis’ reassessment of Karsh is anything but heavy-handed; and, the more I think about it, his sensitivity is equally reflected in his curatorial decisions for the exhibition. He cuts a legitimate path of reinterpretation around, and through, a densely rooted public misconception about the photographer.

The misconception is, I think, twofold. On the one hand it hinges on a highly romantic view of Karsh as a kind of spiritual alchemist, for whom the photographic medium was a kind of x-ray, a utensil for revealing for public witness a sitter’s essence or soul. On the other hand, there is the view of Karsh as a technical wizard, a master of artificial lighting and stagecraft, a conjurer of golden highlights, mid-tone detail, and sooty darks.

Perhaps calling these two contrasting views “misconceptions” is a bit strong. Karsh himself believed firmly in the idea that human gesture and countenance reveal something deep about an individual’s core, whatever that is. And his eye for, and technical grasp of, the photographic medium is not just mythic hearsay, but has been corroborated by those who objectively know the art – including Travis.

At the same time, fixation on these two perpetually rehashed sides of Karsh – the romantic and the technician – has served to somewhat caricature his output. Has he, in a way, been reduced to his portraits of Churchill, Einstein, and Co? Moreover, the Karsh caricature, and the way it has lathered and seduced popular opinion, I think tends to dissuade some in the art world from taking Karsh’s work seriously. He is, for some, a modern secular icon painter who has advanced his own self-image by further mystifying the faces of the already-celebrated.

In my next post I’ll describe how Travis’ reassessment fills in and offers a properly complicated view of Karsh.
 

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