Yusuf Karsh(1908 – 2002) was one of the true master of Portrait photography. During his career, spanning over 60 years, he has arranged more than 15,000 sittings and produced over 150,000 negatives. The list of prominent figures photographed by him includes Winston Churchill, Fidel Castro, John F. Kennedy, Muhammad Ali, Albert Einstein, Audrey Hepburn, Albert Schweitzer, Pope John Paul II, Princess Elizabeth, Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Show, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and the list goes on and on.
What I learned from Karsh?
Study the old paintings as much as you can
While describing his time in Boston as an apprentice under John Garo, a fellow Armenian photographer, he says,
Garo was a wise counsellor; he encouraged me to attend evening classes in art and to study the work of the great masters, especially Rembrandt and Velázquez. Although I never learned to paint, or to make even a fair drawing, I learned about lighting, design, and composition. At the Public Library, which was my other home in Boston, I became a voracious reader in the humanities and began to appreciate the greater dimensions of photography.
Rembrandt: Girl in a Picture Frame
Develop your distinctive style
Garo became a big influence in his career as a portrait photographer. Karsh says,
Garo taught me something more important than technique alone — Garo taught me to see, and to remember what I saw. He also prepared me to think for myself and evolve my own distinctive interpretations. “Understand clearly what you are seeking to achieve,” he would say, “and when it is there, record it. Art is never fortuitous.” When he had made six glass plates of a person, there had been much sharing of truth between the photographer and his subject.
Winston Churchill, 1941, ©Karsh
Do your homework
Describing his wartime visit to London he says,
It was in London that I started the practice which I continue to this day of “doing my homework,” of finding out as much as I can about each person I am to photograph.” There was another story about the portrait session he had with Ernest Hemingway in an interview on “Connie Martinson Talks Books” where Karsh tells, “I had gone the evening before to La Floridita, Hemingway’s favourite bar to do my ‘Homework’ and sample his favourite concoction, the daiquiri. But one can be over prepared! When, at nine the next morning, Hemingway called from the kitchen, ‘What will you have to drink?’ my reply was, I thought, letter-perfect: ‘Daiquiri, sir.’ ‘Good God, Karsh,’ Hemingway remonstrated, ‘at this hour of the day?’.
Ernest Hemingway, 1957, ©Karsh
Try to capture the essence
In his book, Karsh Portfolio in 1967 he writes,
Within every man and 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 that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize.
Albert Einstein, 1948, ©Karsh
Strive for perfection
On achieving perfection he says,
My own quest now has stretched for over half a lifetime. The search for greatness of spirit has compelled me to work harder — to strive for perfection, knowing it to be unattainable. My quest has brought me great joy when something close to my ideal has been attained. It has kept me young in heart, adventurous, forever seeking, and always aware that the heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.
Audrey Hepburn, 1956, ©Karsh
Pablo Picasso, 1954, ©Karsh
Muhammad Ali, 1970, ©Karsh
Martin Luther King Jr, 1962, ©Karsh
Humphrey Bogart, 1946, ©Karsh
Grace Kelly, 1954, ©Karsh
Elizabeth Taylor, 1946, ©Karsh
Albert Schweitzer, 1954, ©Karsh
Brigitte Bardot, 1958, ©Karsh
André Kertész (1894 – 1985) is regarded as one of the best photographers of the 20th century. Spanning over 70 years of career as a photographer, Kertész was influential in photo journalism and the art of photography. Unfortunately, he is one of those photographer who had never gotten the credit he deserved for the most part of his life. He became internationally popular only after his retirement at the age of 68.Robert Doisneau, André Kertész, 1975 . The photograph was taken during ‘6èmes Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie’, Arles, in the south of France.
After graduating from the Hungarian Academy of Commerce, Kertész started to work as a clerk at the Budapest Stock Exchange. Though his career was far from his main aspiration, it provided the much needed financial resources to purchase his first camera. In 1914 he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. This was the time where he started to show his maturity in photography, although he was only 20 years old.
André Kertész, Sleeping Boy, 1912.
Though he sold handful of photographs to the Hungarian magazines, it wasn’t enough to make a living as a photographer. So in 1918 he went back to the Stock Exchange and continued to work for seven more years. This was the time where he met his future wife Elizabeth. In this period he worked during the day at the Stock Exchange and pursued photography the rest of the time.
André Kertész, Elizabeth and I, 1933 | Courtesy Higher Pictures | Vintage Gallery
In 1925 he was emigrated to Paris leaving behind his mother, two of his brothers and his fiancee Elizabeth, looking for better opportunities. With the support of the large Hungarian artist community, he managed to publish some of his work on magazines from several european countries. In fact, in 1927 Kertész was the first photographer to have a solo exhibition in Paris. That year was one of his most productive years in terms of photography, doing commissions and also his personal pieces.
André Kertész, Square la nuit Montparnasse, 1927
André Kertész, Meudon 1928
André Kertész, Boy Holding Puppy, 1928
André Kertész, Broken Plate, Paris, 1929
Shortly after his mother’s death in 1933, he got married to Elizabeth Saly. In 1936 they emigrated to New York where he had been engaged by the Keyston agency. Since then his photographic talent remained unrecognised for almost two decades. Only in 1964 Kertész had made a breakthrough after the curator of the Museum of Modern Art organised a solo exhibition. During the period between 1970-1980 his photographs were exhibited around the world and also received numerous honours.
André Kertész, Place de la Concorde, Paris, 1928
The Wikipedia best summarised the photographic career of Kertész as follows. “Throughout most of his career Kertész was depicted as the “unknown soldier” who worked behind the scenes of photography, yet was rarely cited for his work, even into his death in the 1980s. Kertész thought himself unrecognised throughout his life, despite spending his life in the eternal search for acceptance and fame. Though Kertész received numerous awards for photography, he never felt both his style and work was accepted by critics and art audiences alike.”
Always take the camera with you
In an interview with The Hungarian Quarterly, Kertész was asked if he take a camera everywhere and this was what he had to say, referring to the time during WWI.
“Yes. So there I was, in the front line, lugging the plate negatives around in a metal case. The other lads said I was crazy. “Why?” I asked. “If I come out of this alive, then I’ll develop them; if I don’t, I won’t.” My kid brother had a great idea. Take 9 x 12 cm plates with you, he said, and cut them in four…
Then at night-time, somewhere in the village, or wherever we were, I would search out a dark place. I had a glass cutter and quartered the plates. It was a stroke of genius, because that way in one box of 9 x 12’s I had material not for 12 but for 48 photographs. Oh, how big was the camera? 4.5 x 6 cm.
That means it was nice and flat, so I could slip it into my pocket. Part of our regiment was taken prisoner by the Russians; they had to be replaced urgently and we made a forced march for 48 hours non-stop, with just a few minutes to snatch some sleep standing up, or to relieve ourselves, grab a few mouthfuls of food, then on and on. I stepped out of the ranks to snap the column, then carried on marching.”
Try different techniques and different equipments
Kertész regularly experimented with camera equipments to achieve certain aesthetic aspects of his pictures.
While he was living in an 12th floor apartment in the NYC, he used a telephoto lens to capture some of the snow covered Washington park through his window.
André Kertész, Washington Square, New York, 1954
“Distortions is the title of a late-career book by André Kertész. Published in English and French in 1976, and it has become the name assigned to the series of distorted female nudes he photographed in 1933. Kertész was more than eighty years old when this set of images became famous. Until then they had been seen only sporadically, as something of a oddity, perhaps the most fantastical pictures ever made by a photographer who was never bound by the norms.”(Frizot, Wanaverbecq, “Kertész”, p.157)
André Kertész, Distortion, 1933
In later part of his life he also took a series of pictures with a Polaroid Camera (Polaroid SX-70).
“Kertész’s use of the Polaroid SX-70 is irrevocably intertwined with the death of his wife Elizabeth in October 1977. The two had met nearly sixty years before and only during the last few years had Kertész, with the publication of his late-career books, acquired an international reputation. It was after the musician Graham Nash gave him a Polaroid camera—and with the assistance of Polaroid’s Artist Support Program, which supplied him with film—that the photographer, always interested in new techniques, saw the possibilities for intimate work offered by this innovative process. The small square size of the prints (8x8cm), the colour format, and the production of a single shot developed immediately without a negative was vastly different from traditional photographic practice. After three months of hesitation, he purchased a glass bust he had seen in a store window, which led him to work with renewed energy on a number of compositions, starting with this “model” installed on his windowsill. The bust inevitably reminded him of Elizabeth: “I was very touched…The neck and the shoulder…it was Elizabeth.” As always with Kertész, emotion determined his photographic activity.” (Frizot, Wanaverbecq, “Kertész”, p.318)
André Kertész, Polaroids, (1979-1984)
Take photos with instinct
Kertész used more of instincts rather than the theories when taking photographs. In the same interview with the THQ,
“László Moholy Nagy was a true genius. He came to Paris for the first Bauhaus exhibition there, so naturally we met. He showed me his mobiles and asked me to photograph them. I jokingly asked him why he didn’t photograph them himself, since he was a photographer in his own right. He replied, “I just play with photography.”
That really was what he did: play with photos. He was a marvellous person. After I arrived in America, he invited me to teach at the New Bauhaus in Chicago. I didn’t accept the offer, I’m not a teacher by nature. Theories and those sorts of things are not my cup of tea. I don’t have any theories but do everything by instinct: I sense something and do it- that’s all.”
Do not compromise your style
In 1923, early in his career, the Hungarian Amateur Photographer’s Association selected one of his photographs for its silver award, on the condition that he print it by the bromoil process. Kertész disliked this, so turned down the medal. Instead, he was given a diploma from the association.
André Kertész, American Ballet, New York, 1938
In 1938, working on an assignment with the American Ballet Theatre, he was ejected by the theatre’s union. As always, he needed an “idea” of his own: “I wanted to do something my way- with my conception-without complications. I took the dancers along and photographed them on a children’s playground dancing… Look at the adoration of the children in the picture. This is a fantastic moment captured in a photo. The dancer, which is the glamour, and the children. The choice of the children’s playground, the presence of children as spectators, and the dancers with their white tutus suspended in mid-leap together certainly made “a photo” but the irresistible touch that made it a “Kertész photo” was the painted wall in the background with its decrepit fresco of children on a beach watching a wave roll in, an echo in the past, in space, in fascination, of the children in the foreground. And probably what caused the picture to be rejected by Life”.(Frizot, Wanaverbecq, “Kertész”, p.15)
Kertész was influential in building up the career of Brassaï, a french photographer of Hungarian origin. When asked about the broken relationship with Brassaï this is what he said.
“I was very fond of him. He was a genius: a marvellous painter, marvellous draughtsman, marvellous caricaturist and a good writer. I got to know him while I was living in Paris.
His father was a journalist in Transylvania, in Brassó (Bras¸ov). He left there for Berlin, then afterwards, I believe, he came over to Paris and just worked and worked. He was smart. I was very fond of him- a pleasant chap. Anyway, there were problems in his day-to-day life; certain things happened- trouble!
He didn’t have the money to pay the rent, that sort of thing. One day I said to him, “Look, what you’re doing is crazy. Take up photography. You can make the money you need with photos, and then you’ll have no worries, you’ll have money for everything: you can paint, if that’s what you want, make sculptures, if you want, no trouble.
You can have all that simply and easily with photography.” “No! no! and again no!”. So I told him, “You tag along with me and I’ll show you how to do it.” So I took him around on one reportage assignment after another, and I explained literally everything there is to know, as if he were a brother- both from a technical standpoint and compositionally.
In a word, everything. I said to him, “You’re bright, you have taste. You’ll learn and then you’ll see: the money will come rolling in.” I did that with him for a while, and afterwards I sent him off to try something on his own. He got back, and they were Kertész photos in every respect.”
André Kertész, Lost Cloud, New York,1937
English translation of the interview conducted by The Hungarian Quarterly: http://www.xpatloop.com/news/13880
Estate of André Kertész