Formal portraits of the famous have been making news. The Barack and Michelle Obama portraits by Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald were the subject of much discussion when they were unveiled in February and their presence has propelled attendance at Washington’s National Portrait Gallery.
Locally, the Springfield Museum of Art is wrapping up a traveling show featuring the pictures of famous baby boomers. Produced by the Newseum and AARP, the show focused on 19 large portraits by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.
This weekend, the Dayton Art Institution unveils its latest special exhibition: “Yousuf Karsh: American Portraits.” On loan from the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the exhibit showcases 48 photographs by one of the most renowned portrait photographers of our time and features Americans who have distinguished themselves in fields ranging from business and medicine to entertainment, politics and the arts. Portraits include writer Ernest Hemingway; artists Georgia O’Keeffe and Andy Warhol; actors Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart; athletes Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson; business leaders Elizabeth Arden and Warren Buffett; architects Frank Lloyd Wright and I. M. Pei; first ladies Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Eleanor Roosevelt; and entertainment giants Walt Disney and Jim Henson.
Karsh, who grew up in Armenia during the Armenian massacres, fled to Canada in 1924 at the age of 16 where he lived with an uncle who was an established professional photographer. After an apprenticeship with Boston portrait photographer John H. Garo, Karsh returned to Canada in 1932 where he opened a portrait studio in Ottawa. The phenomenal success of his 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill, which you’ll see in this exhibition, launched Karsh’s international career. He died in 2002.
In the introduction to his 50-year retrospective, Karsh wrote: “The endless fascination of these people for me lies in what I call their inward power. It is part of the elusive secret that hides in everyone, and it has been my life’s work to try to capture it on film. The mask we present to others and, too often, to ourselves, may lift for only a second — to reveal that power in an unconscious gesture, a raised brow, a surprised response, a moment of repose. This is the moment to record.”
The traveling exhibit — first displayed in Washington, D.C., in 2013-14 — was organized by Ann M. Shumard, senior curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. I spoke with Shumard about her museum, Yousuf Karsh and the photos we’ll see on display.
Q. What defines a portrait?
A. Sometimes people envision a traditional oil painting or something on canvas, but this museum has always had an expansive definition of portraiture. The Portrait Gallery, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary of being open to the public, collects in all media — photographs, prints, drawings, paintings, sculptures and time-based media — moving images.
Q. Why are people so interested in pictures of famous people?
A. Obviously, there is very vibrant celebrity culture in our country, but the interest of people in the news goes back a long way. Even in the 19th century, there was an extraordinarily response to Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind’s visit to America in 1850 and photographers vied for opportunities to take her portrait and sell them to the public.
I think people are drawn to people. It’s a natural instinct to be interested in larger-than-life personalities. Perhaps we look for reflections of our own experiences in their lives.
Q. Can you tell us what makes Karsh special as a photographer?
A. Karsh was someone who really sought to bring out the best in his sitters; he wasn’t a gotcha photographer — he didn’t pop out from behind a tree. He thought of a sitting as a collaboration between the subject and himself. He would read about his subjects, spend time getting to know them and engage in conversation with them. He was a courtly, kind and empathetic photographer who looked for an image that would be respectful. He cared very deeply about creating an image that would capture the sitter’s inner power, their soul, their character.
At first, his portraits were done in his studio, later he took his camera and lighting and recreated the studio setting on site.
Q. How did the National Portrait Gallery acquire these photos?
A. The museum had acquired a couple of them but most of these photos in the exhibit come from a 2012 gift of 109 works that the museum received from Karsh’s wife, Estrellita. She is a remarkable woman with tremendous energy and vitality. She was a partner with him in his practice, the person who emotionally supported him and created a sense of calm and stability for him. She is committed to her husband’s legacy.
Q. Why did you select this collection for touring?
A. Whenever possible, we love the opportunity to circulate exhibitions and give them a broader audience so that they aren’t seen only by people who can come to Washington. Karsh also did some color portraits but they are more vulnerable to fading and he is best known for his black-and-white photos.
The ones we selected give you a good sense of the types of people he photographed. I included not only the names that would be absolutely familiar — like Jacqueline Kennedy — but also those who might be less well known like magazine magnet Henry Luce, labor leader John L. Lewis, radio/TV pioneer David Sarnoff and designer Russel Wright (who was born in Lebanon, Ohio).
Q. What are your favorite portraits in this exhibit?
A. I love the portrait of of Ingrid Bergman. He photographed her without stage makeup, unlike other movie actresses who came perfectly made up and coiffed. She was such a natural beauty and that natural luminous quality comes through beautifully.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s portrait is wonderful, too. It captures the sense of her vitality and animation. Karsh said her hands were always in motion and he was captivated by how articulate her hands were. So he waited for a moment when her expression matched her hands. (“Hands give clues to the entire personality,” Karsh has written. “They are for me, almost a barometer of a person’s being, a distillation of the whole.”)
And the famous photo of Winston Churchill launched Karsh’s international career. It was an instance of his not having advanced time with his sitter; it was an opportunity to take a picture in Ottawa in 1941 after Churchill had just finished a major speech and was moving from one room to another. Churchill had a cigar in his mouth, and Karsh tried to politely ask him to remove the cigar but Churchill refused. Karsh ultimately snatched it out of his mouth which is how he accounted for Churchill’s severe, glowering expression in the portrait.
Q. What do you advise visitors to look for in these portraits?
A. I hope people will notice the lighting, that was one of the definitive features of Karsh’s photography. Initially, he used natural lighting but became friendly with members of the Ottawa Drama League who introduced him to artificial lighting. After he saw how stage lighting could be used for such dramatic effect, he began using it and you’ll see how wonderfully lit these portraits are. Lighting has a lot to do with how successful a picture is and there’s a drama brought out just by the way the lighting is positioned.
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