Reassessing Karsh

Authored by: Andrew Kear on September 8, 2009

In his catalogue essay for Yousuf Karsh: Regarding Heroes, curator David Travis writes that Karsh aimed at capturing his subject’s “inner heroic being” and, most importantly, their “simple, inherent goodness.” I think what makes Karsh so jarringly out of place with modern times is his unswerving view of people as moral, flourishing, rational beings, and his unflappable abstinence from exploring, to quote Travis, “the unsavoury recesses of the human psyche.”

And you can see this in the photographs themselves. Even among the individuals who have, for some people, demonstrated (what shall I say?) moral ambiguity – Castro, Vonnegut, and (for many of us Western Canadians) Trudeau – there is an abiding goodness and human worth. Yes, even on Trudeau’s face I see concern and determination, not a diabolical forked stare you do!

On second thought, a part of me can’t help but doubt that calling him old-school really contributes to understanding Karsh today, or is even accurate. It’s funny how formal honorific portraits, like those of Karsh, are dismissed with such a high doses of suspicion. We sense that such portraits are pulling a fast one on us: they help construct and legitimize the sitter’s vaulted position, rather than neutrally reflect it, but are designed to appear, all the while, as if to be doing things the other way around. And yet, what we might call quintessentially modern portraits – those that portray an individual’s anguish, suggests their flaws and weaknesses, or express a tortured soul – we so often insist (even if we don’t happen to like the portrait) that the portrait “reveals” something about the individual. Why do we suddenly we throw all suspicion out the window and swoon with empathy?

Reassessing Karsh, I think, involves reassessing some of the assumptions we might have about formal, honorific, portraiture. And, hopefully, it involves suspending a certain level of the suspicion and cynicism that constitute the attitudinal baseline of our age, to making room for serious discussion about what a portrait constructs and what it reveals.


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