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  • Portrait in Light and Shadow: The Life of Yousuf Karsh
  • Heather Diack (bio)
Maria Tippett . Portrait in Light and Shadow: The Life of Yousuf Karsh. Yale University Press. 2007. xx, 428. US$35.00

Maria Tippett's Portrait in Light and Shadow is an entertaining and touching recounting of the life of Canada's most famous portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002). This biography of the Armenian-Canadian photographer gracefully accomplishes the challenging task of weaving the narrative of Karsh's personal life with the portrait of his public persona, lending insight into not only his particular approach to photography but also his kinship to the celebrities he photographed. In addition the book raises implicit questions about the changing status of photographing the famous while connoting the important connections between becoming famous and being photographed. The personalities Karsh chose to document gain dimensions through his photographs, and likewise Karsh's own story is given new vitality through Tippett's writing.

Tippett shares anecdotes that are familiar as well as those that are lesser known, and they are exposed here only as a result of her extensive research. She relates the famous tale regarding the creation of Karsh's 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill, 'The Roaring Lion,' in which Karsh boldly removed a cigar straight out of Churchill's mouth in order to generate the photograph that has become the single most famous image of the wartime leader. This image most emphatically embodies Churchill's intense gravitas, and in a turn of compelling symmetry, seems to also stand out as an iconic document of Karsh's own determination and vision.

Much more akin to the model of celebrity photography fashioned by Nadar or Cecil Beaton, Karsh preferred staged and posed portraits that reflected the uniqueness of the person being photographed. Karsh was in control of all aspects of the shoot and the development process, including extensive touch-ups in some cases as Tippett describes. Nevertheless Karsh was always careful to allow his subjects to express their own dignity. By contrast to the dominant imaging of today's celebrities, which is blatantly obsessed with candid camera paparazzi shots that undermine the integrity of celebrities as characters let alone as people, Karsh looked for the humanity in all he photographed, while capturing them as individuals first and foremost. Tippett allows Karsh this same kindness. Distinctively called 'the Rembrandt of photography,' imaginably it is for these reasons that Karsh was given access to such pivotal cultural figures as Princess Elizabeth, Humphrey Bogart, Nikita Khrushchev, Pablo Picasso, the Marx Brothers, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, to name but a few. Karsh famously talked with his [End Page 447] clients before and during a sitting in order to establish a comfort level and to extract insight into his subjects. 'Who is the greatest person of this century?' was not surprisingly one of his favourites from his repertoire of conversation starters.

Tippett's profundity of description is also impressive when she articulates the artistic changes that Karsh underwent in his technical and aesthetic approach to photography over the years. Including, for example, his transition from a pictorialist style to being a follower of new objectivity. The book is well ordered and includes reproductions of many key photographs, allowing the reader to experience visibly the aspects Tippett draws attention to in the text.

Employing the dramatic interplay between light and shadow as in academic portrait painting, Tippett similarly presents the theatre of Karsh's life. Telling the full story of how this young Armenian immigrant living in Ottawa in the 1930s became the most prominent portrait photographer of the twentieth century, Tippett takes her lens through nearly every aspect of Karsh's life, from his early childhood in Turkey to the intimacy of his relationship with his first wife, Solange Gauthier, using clear and convincing prose to move between Karsh's personal and professional life.

In effect, Tippett herself is also a portrait artist. Always perceptive to the possible affinities between Karsh and the people he photographed, Tippett retells Karsh's meeting with Albert Einstein in 1948. In their exchange, Einstein revealed to Karsh, 'It is strange to be known so universally...


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pp. 447-448
Launched on MUSE
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