Character, Like A Photograph, Develops In Darkness

This morning as I was driving to work, I happened to be flipping through my preset radio stations and came upon one of the recent songs by the band Coldplay, “Adventure Of A Lifetime,” which has an intriguing and thought provoking line to it that I was musing over, “Under this pressure, under this weight / Yeah, diamonds are taking shape.” When I got to work, I was forwarded a report by one of my cube farm neighbors that had an inspirational quote from noted Armenian photographer Yousuf Karsh, alongside one of the photographers noted black and white photos, some of which have become very famous (like the photo of a sitting Winston Churchill that appeared on the cover of Life magazine [1]). As it happened, the song and the inspirational photo and quote had the same message, that it was darkness and difficulty that refined our character and formed us into something glorious and precious. As might be expected given the serpentine course of my own life, it is the sort of matter that I think about often [2].

One might ask what sort of darkness had formed the character of Mr. Karsh. How was it that this world-famous photographer of the world’s elites knew enough about darkness to be a judge of it, after all? As it happens, Yousuf Karsh was born in a city in what is now Eastern Turkey, in the early 1900’s. Concerning his experiences during the Armenian Massacre that took place in World War I, a matter that is still criminal to speak of in Turkey, it should be noted, Yousuf had the following comments to make: “”I saw relatives massacred; my sister died of starvation as we were driven from village to village [3].” It was only after surviving this harrowing experience as a refugee from the genocidal hatred of the Turks for his people as they feared the Armenians serving as a ready insurgent force for invading Russians that he was able to make it to Canada, where he apprenticed as a photographer with his uncle, and developed a striking and even haunting black and white style to his photographs, a reminder of the stern and stark circumstances of his own life.

About his photography, Yousuf said the following in the Karsh Portfolio in 1967: “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.” Mr. Karsh was a man well-equipped both to speak about the darkness as well as about the masks that we all wear to hide our innermost selves from the world. After all, the people that we are inside are often deeply sensitive, and the world we live in is harsh and cruel to the sensitive, and so those who wish to endure and survive must somehow hide the inner sensitivity of their soul underneath a mask so as to appear more imperturbable than one really is, for if others knew how easily we were cut and wounded and troubled they would never cease tormenting us.

For reasons unknown to me, one of my father’s chief passions was photography. Although he was a man who kept his own mask to the world on tightly, it seems strange that my father would choose as a hobby something that required him to attempt to spot the secrets and pierce the veil of other people. It seems strangely unsettling that one would want to uncover the secrets of others without being forthright about one’s own secrets, or see beneath the mask of others while keeping one’s own mask on securely. After all, a genuine relationship is one of shared vulnerability, where both sides can trust the other to be faithful to covenants and confidences and to be gentle and understanding with the sensitivities of the other. It is clear that Yousuf Karsh, in writing and speaking about his own experiences, and in spending time with others, not only sought to spot the vulnerability and true selves of others, but also sought to reveal his own true self, so that there would be a mutual and reciprocal exchange, and not merely an act of intrusive violence.

For photography is an art to the extent that it reveals the inner being of the photographer. There are many people today who take selfies as a way of image management, of sharing their activities and their lives with others. But there is always a dual side to art. In seeking to reach the heart and spirit of other people, one must reveal one’s own. An artist, whether one is a writer or a photographer or a painter or a musician or sculptor, or any other medium, is one who creates art out of the deepest and darkest places of their own being. It is in these dark places that one’s character is formed out of one’s choices, one’s habits, made little by little, bit by bit, here a little, there a little, over the course of a lifetime. It is this character that is revealed in the crises of our lives, and that we will have to defend or confess in the judgment. May the photographs of our character, developed in the darkest rooms of our lives, speak well of us, for the day will come when they will have to be shown before the eyes of the world.


[2] See, for example:

[3] Lucas, Dean (2007). “Famous Pictures Magazine – Churchill’s Portrait”. Famous Pictures Magazine.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Character, Like A Photograph, Develops In Darkness

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