Yusef Karsh was a famous Canadian portrait photographer whose clientele encompassed the great and mighty from the world of the arts, science and politics. As I look at his work, the question arises: did he slip past the persona of his subjects and capture their essence, the real person, and if so–how?
Carl Jung frequently spoke of the persona which all of us have unconsciously [and sometimes consciously] constructed for our protection. Protection? From what? From our true selves being too well known. In his own words–Jung said,
“The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.” Carl Jung The Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious
But what has this to do with Yusef Karsh, the portrait photographer? He expressed a very similar thought to Jung’s.
“Within every man or woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves. In that fleeting interval of opportunity, the photographer must act of lose his prize.” Yusef Karsh.
This was his primary task in portraiture. Born in Armenia, Karsh came to Canada at a very young age with his family who settled in Ottawa, the nation’s capital. His first major project was to photograph Winston Churchill. This was the beginning of a very long career in which he photographed innumerable famous people.
The photograph shows Churchill in a state of high dudgeon. Karsh had been given the grand total of two minutes to capture the essence of this great man. How is it that he looked so angry? Simple. Karsh had just grabbed Churchill’s cigar from his hand! A brave move indeed. But what of Churchill himself? This photograph was taken In the midst of World War Two and therefore epitomizes the courage, steadfastness and even rage so necessary to lead the nation [and the rest of the western world] to defeat Nazism.But what of Churchill himself?
Below, you’ll also seen his photographs of Ernest Hemingway and Albert Einstein.
Here’s the question. Do you think that Karsh was able to penetrate the persona of the man in each of these photographs or was he left on the outside blinded by the persona?
Take a look at the photograph of Ernest Hemingway. Most people think of him as having an overpowering “macho” image, which of course, Hemingway did his best to cultivate. But in this photograph of him, I see a touching vulnerability of a young boy in the man and so, I’d say that Karsh succeeded beautifully.
How about Einstein. What do you see of the true man? I think most people realize the brilliance of the man as a scientist. One might expect to see a rather aloof, if not cold and austere expression on such a man. However, here, I think Karsh was able to capture a highly intelligent but a very sensitive and thoughtful man. Here I see the man who played Mozart and Chopin on the piano with elegance and grace and the man who wrote of spiritual matters.
What do you think? Did Karsh succeed in getting past the mask to the real man? Please do leave me a message as I love to hear your thoughts.
Joseph Campbell Foundation has just recently selected the novels of The Trilogy of Remembrance [The Drawing Lesson, The Fate of Pryde and Night Crossing] along with the works of fifteen other authors as novels with mythic themes. I am honoured to be included along with Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, J.R.R. Tolkein and James Joyce in this group. You can find the Joseph Campbell Foundation Amazon page right here