Karsh’s Dark Magic

Authored by: Andrew Kear on August 25, 2009

I’ll admit it: I have a soft spot for formal, well composed, portraits. I reserve – oddly, some would say – the official painted version, depicting political subjects, as my favorite category of portraiture. One of the things making formal portraiture, in general, so interesting is the fact that it can elicit disagreement between viewers about when and for whom a dignified portrait is warranted, and debate regarding what exactly makes for an appropriately reverential visual cue in a portrait.

Debate can be quite intense, no less because of the spooky, transformative, magic that the studio portrait can wield in making some hitherto ignored, or even disgraced, figure suddenly worthy of awe and respect. The Seinfeld episode “The Letter” fully explored and capitalized on this idea. Its premise, you’ll recall, is based on the virtually universal incredulity toward the idea that a shiftless character Cosmo Kramer could merit a formal portrait. On the other hand, the cultural impact of the episode and the famed portrait known as “The Kramer” (reproduced as a poster and displayed by pop-culture geeks in dorm rooms everywhere throughout the mid-1990s) exemplified portraiture’s magic. The fact that we all laughed at “The Kramer” portrait and noted its ridiculousness made, and makes, no difference. Through the portrait, the character received a kind of apotheosis, ascended into pop-culture iconography; a one-dimensional, slap-stick side-kick was raised from the dead and transformed into the genius-clown of a generation.

Portraiture is a dark craft. It is one that is understood and wielded especially well by someone like Yousuf Karsh. I look forward to seeing his portraits of greatness not primarily so that I can see his famous pictures of famous people, but because I look forward to struggling against them, against the kind of seductive magic they will no doubt employ.

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