The recent death of Yousuf Karsh, at age 93, has received much less attention than the death of Ted Williams. Yet Karsh was to portrait photography what Ted Williams was to hitting a baseball -- simply the best of his time and one of the greats of all time.
Karsh's classic photograph of Winston Churchill in 1941 was what put him on the map and launched a whole new style of portraits -- dark, sharp, with highlights that gave shape and emphasis to the individual being photographed. More than that, Karsh captured the persona, whether it was a dogged Churchill, a pensive Einstein, or a relaxed and rumpled Robert Frost.
Many tried to imitate Karsh's style but none ever quite managed to do it. What Karsh had was not just a mastery of light and shadows and photographic technique, but an insight into human beings that made all the rest of his talents come together to produce classic photographs. The great and near-great from around the world had their portraits taken by Karsh -- Hemingway, Nehru, Picasso, Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Pope John XXIII, George Bernard Shaw, and many others.
Typically these were the best and most famous photos ever taken of these often photographed individuals. If you were leafing through a magazine and came upon a portrait that just stopped you in your tracks, chances are it was identified as being by "Karsh of Ottawa," his signature designation.
Photography remains one of the few areas where one lone individual can shape the development of a whole field. What Karsh did with portrait photography David Douglas Duncan did with press photography.
Movies and newsreels from the 1930s and 1940s almost invariably show press photographers carrying a large camera with a bellows called a Speed Graphic. That was the hallmark and virtually the definition of a press photographer. One book changed all that.
The book was titled "The Face of War" by Life magazine photographer David Douglas Duncan, and it contained gripping and graphic scenes from the Korean war that was still raging when it was published. What was historic was that these photos were not taken by a Speed Graphic but by a 35mm Leica, outfitted with Japanese lenses from a then little-known manufacturer called Nikon.
Those of us who were young Marines going through photography school at the Pensacola Naval Air Station at the time were astonished at the sharpness and detail in these 35mm pictures. But little did we suspect that these photos marked the beginning of the end for the Speed Graphics that we were being trained to use.
No longer was it necessary to lug around heavy and cumbersome cameras. Improvements in both lenses and films now made it possible to get good quality photos with smaller cameras that allowed more mobility and made it easier to capture fleeting moments, which were often memorable. Within a decade, Speed Graphics were obsolete.
Other pioneers shaped the evolution of photography in other eras. Back during the Civil War, Matthew Brady revolutionized the coverage of wars with his grim and shocking photographs of battlefields strewn with the bodies of men killed in that titanic struggle. Never again would war be a romantic adventure taking place somewhere else. Brady's photographs brought it home to the most remote and sheltered civilian.
Perhaps the greatest photographer of all time was Ansel Adams, who was to landscape photography what Karsh was to portraits -- both a consummate artist and a consummate technician. Ansel Adams did not so much change landscape photography as bring it to peaks of photographic perfection and emotional impact never achieved before or since.
Some who have followed in his footsteps have produced some good pictures, but Ansel Adams remains in a class by himself. Some later photographers who have produced pretentious blurs or politically correct propaganda photos have tried to disdain the beauty that Ansel Adams left the world. But they will be forgotten when he is still remembered and his photos of Yosemite and Yellowstone continue to brighten the lives of millions.
Every field has its pioneering giants. Photography has just lost one of its greatest in Yousuf Karsh.