Beetles & Huxley, London. 20th September – 20th October 2016.
More of a print sale than an exhibition, and in one of London’s smaller photographic galleries, this is a compact but excellent collection, featuring 23 large black and white portraits – all of the globally great and the good, from the 1940s to the 1980s.
Karsh described his career as “a search for greatness”, and he sought out subjects that were famous and respected in their own field. He seemed to be trying to capture the indefinable qualities that make a person ‘great’, and by all accounts treated each subject with an enormous amount of respect and dignity.
His most well-known image and the one that kickstarted his portraiture career is the iconic shot of Sir Winston Churchill where the subject’s belligerent scowl is famously down to the photographer having snatched a cigar out of his mouth the moment before the shutter was pressed. It’s not only iconic but highly topical, as I realised when I got one in my change that day that it is the image on the back the new £5 note…
Karsh’s images are technically superb. As noted in the catalogue, the detail in his portrait of Ernest Hemingway is sufficiently rich that the beard and woolly jumper look so three-dimensional that you could stroke them.
His 1956 portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the most striking portraits I’ve seen. O’Keeffe was, of course, no stranger to being photographed, being the wife and muse of the great Alfred Stieglitz, yet it is this portrait of the later, mature, widowed O’Keeffe that touched me more than any of the earlier images.
Karsh usually employed tightly controlled studio lighting but in this instance relied on natural sunlight, illuminating O’Keeffe’s noble profile. The skull and antlers hark back to both O’Keefe’s own artwork and some of Stieglitz’s portraits of her, and simultaneously act as a signifier for mortality. Visually, the twists and curves of the antlers echo both elements of the rest of the picture – the swirls of grey in her hair, the curve of her hand – and the gymnastic poses of her youthful Stieglitz portraits.
It’s such a magnificent portrait. If only I had the £30,000 to buy it…
I can’t write this up without mentioning the catalogue. It’s one of the most beautiful and tactile catalogues I’ve encountered, a black velvet hardback with all of the 23 images as plates inside, plus a detailed biography. And it was an unfathomably inexpensive £10 – the best money I spent all weekend.
I wouldn’t normally go out of my way to compare one exhibition with another, but the context is that I saw this immediately after the William Eggleston Portraits show at the National Portrait Gallery, and whilst I loved them both, in many ways they couldn’t have been more different. Where Eggleston’s subjects were mostly unknowns, and his portraits mostly colourful, informal and loosely composed, Karsh’s are the opposite in every way.
This led me to ponder what it is I like in a portrait, if I found these two practitioners equally interesting. The conclusion I came to is that a good portrait makes you think you know more about the subject than you really do – the photographer has managed to tease something out of the sitter and hold it up for closer inspection. Eggleston does this with unknowns that he knows well, Karsh did this with people that we think we know.
http://www.beetlesandhuxley.com/exhibitions/yousuf-karsh.html (accessed 29/09/2016)
Yousuf Karsh Exhibition Catalogue (2016). London: Beetles & Huxley