Yousuf Karsh had a very powerful, and engaging style for a portrait photographer.
As stated in my biography of Karsh, I believe that his mentor, John Garo, and his time with the Ottawa Little Players Theatre Group had the greatest influence on his style of photography. Garo taught him that it was important to truly see and then strive to portray one’s subject. This had a great influence on Karsh as one of the most prevalent themes among his photos is that they really tell the viewer about their subject. I believe one of the greatest examples of this is his photograph of Prime Minister Mackenzie King. This photograph depicts a man sitting outside with his dog, and reading a book. Upon seeing this rather informal portrait, one would not know that this was the leader of a country, but merely that it was a man who enjoyed such calm moments. In this way Karsh was able to tell us more about Mackenzie King the man, instead of Mackenzie King the political figure.
The theatre group had a great influence on Karsh’s work, as they introduced him to the capabilities and use of stage lighting. With the adoption of the use of this artificial lighting, Karsh was able to really set the mood of a photograph, and to better draw one’s attention to what he wanted them to see. It became a signature part of his style, as most of his photos are lit dramatically in such a way that would not be possible with natural light. One example of his ingenious use of such lighting are the numerous photographs of artists Karsh has taken, for in such photos he uses the lighting to draw some attention to one of the most important parts of an artist, their hands.
It is important to note that Karsh’s subjects were usually the great, the powerful, the talented, and the famous. He liked meeting and photographing such amazing personalities, and through his photographs he was able to share his impression of such great (and yet distant) figures with the world.
With a masterful use of the elements and principles of design such as composition, lighting, contrast, movement, and value, Karsh created numerous extremely striking, and eye-catching photographs. He was able to use such elements to great effect as he created images that could draw you in, make you look where he wanted you to look, and see what he wanted you to see.