Yousuf Karsh (December 23, 1908 – July 13, 2002) was an Armenian-Canadian photographer known for his portraits of notable individuals. He has been described as one of the greatest portrait photographers of the 20th century.
“To make enduring photographs, one must learn to see with one’s mind’s eye, for the heart and the mind are the true lens of the camera.” That is what Yousuf wrote from long experience and what should come first as we think about his portraits.
His camera of choice was large format: 8 by 10 with an interchangeable 4 by 5 back. The developers were to his own formulae because that is what he learned from his early years with George Nakash and John Garo – no Kodak packages. For negatives, he used special chemicals that allowed a faint green light to reveal the deepening densities so he could judge each one individually. For prints, he had two developers, “hard” and “soft”, and sometimes both would be used on the same photograph – one to bathe the print, and the other to be applied in specific areas with a piece of cotton.
He preferred tungsten lights because he could see the results playing across the faces of his subjects, and they were less disruptive than the flash of strobes. I would always set up the lights and camera in the same way so he knew instinctually where everything was. It was like an artist who places paints in the same order on his palette to concentrate fully on the canvas. Yousuf would then make adjustments as the sitting progressed – sometimes minor, sometimes major, but never the same.
He worked with one assistant when traveling or in the studio so as not to break the concentration with his subject – no entourage for hair, make-up, or styling. He was in charge, no matter his subject, and he chose the locations and set-ups.
Once the lighting and composition were to his satisfaction, he would leave the camera with the shutter release innocently in his hand and engage his subject, ready to squeeze the bulb, capture a moment of truth, and share it with us.