Yousuf Karsh’s lifelong ambition was to search for a form within a face, one that could become a symbol for a life that was purposeful, meaningful, and generally virtuous. ‘I speak with some experience when I say that I have rarely left the company of accomplished men and women without feeling that they had in them real sincerity, integrity yes, and sometimes vanity of course and always a sense of high purpose.’ In his sixty-year career, he seldom wavered from this goal, even when fame and fortune came his way. Nor did he discard his trademark variations in lighting style that he perfected in the late 1940s. Unchanging, too, was his genius at capturing the ephemeral expressions that would reveal his sitter’s psychology, those fleeting disclosures of character and purpose his famous sitters trusted him to expose.
He was the preferred photographer of kings, queens, princes, presidents, prime ministers and generals because he rendered them with an unbiased and unfailing regard for their dignity. With musicians, artists, writers, scientists, actors, and other creative intellectuals, he shared a similiar ambition: to create works of art of lasting value. In making what now seem singular, monumental statements honoring those he considered his contemporary heroes, he stood alone in his field, so much so that it could be argued he was the last of his kind.
This large-format volume, printed in tritone, collects many highlights of Karsh’s career one hundred iconic portraits in all. Ranging from the famous 1941 Roaring Lion image of Churchill, through the unforgettable photographs of Anita Ekberg and the Kennedys from the 1950s, to his sittings with Kurt Vonnegut and Jessye Norman in 1990, Regarding Heroes is a dazzling reminder of the breadth of Karsh’s vision and the brilliance of his technique. The introductory essay by David Travis takes serious critical stock of the importance of Karsh’s work and his place in the pantheon of major portrait artists. Rounding out the volume are brief biographical essays on each subject that include Karsh’s own perceptive comments about his experience.
The cover image of Hemingway, taken in 1957, when the writer was just four years from suicide, is set against a black background, placing the famous face almost in relief, its craggy features suggesting not only the force of will that defined Hemingway’s life but also the fissures that would soon affect his personality and perceptions. Whether Karsh is capturing Audrey Hepburn’s almost ethereal beauty, or Fidel Castro in a rare moment of introspection, or the iron will of Winston Churchill (in the 1941 image that launched Karsh’s career), the viewer is struck simultaneously by the formal beauty of the composition and the way that beauty feeds our sense of the personality before us. A master photographer and a masterpiece of bookmaking. –Bill Ott, Booklist (Starred Review)