Book Review: Regarding Heroes

Regarding Heroes, by Yousuf Karsh

Once I went to an art museum in Portland where I spent a great deal of time looking at the context between two photos taken some thirty years apart of the same woman [1]. This book is a lot like looking at the same kind of photograph, classy black and white photographs taken by a man who happened to be a survivor of the Armenian genocide [2] and a thoughtful practitioner of the art of producing elegant and rather pointed portrait photographs. As my father was fond of photography when he was alive, I have tended to shy away from reading and reviewing books about photography for the most part, but reading the biography of the author and recognizing his optimism in the face of harrowing life experiences and his desire to celebrate the character he found in others, I thought his photographs would end up being a worthwhile way to celebrate my own great interest in heroes and in celebrating noble character [3]. As it was, the book happened to be an excellent work, and one that would not be out of place as a coffee table book in the home of any of my close friends or those at whose houses I enjoy going for dinners and pot lucks and so on.

This book consists of three unequal parts that, combined, make up about a 200 page book. The first part of the book is a lengthy essay of more than 40 pages by David Travis that places Karsh’s photography in the context of the art criticism of his time and afterward, pointing out why his work has not remained popular in critical circles even as it remains very well-loved by the general public, including people such as myself who loved his photographs long before I knew who took them. To give only one example among several, his photograph of an implacable Winston Churchill has gone down as one of the most notable photographs of all time. The second part consists of about 100 or so photographs taken by Karsh during his long life, all of them black and white, with classy lighting, some of them studio photographs, some of them taken around the world, of people who are generally noteworthy and often considered to be heroic and particularly worthwhile. The people in the photos range from royalty like Queen Elizabeth and Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco to luminaries of science and culture like Albert Einstein and Albert Camus and Albert Schweitzer, to sports and music figures like Muhammad Ali and Marion Anderson and Jean Sibelius, to political leaders like Pierre Trudeau, Fidel Castro, and the aforementioned Winston Churchill, among many others, including quite a few actors and actresses. After the photos there are some touching biographical sketches of the people photographed by Patricia Kouba, making this a very excellent work in getting to know the lives of the people photographed in such a touching fashion contained in this book.

What makes Karsh’s work so well-loved even now, more than a decade after his death, by the general public even if it is not well-loved by the art critics is the essentially conservative nature of Karsh’s work. As a religious man committed to goodness and an optimistic belief that good as represented by the West would triumph over evils like Turkish nationalism or the horrors of Fascism, even though he was not narrowly partisan in the political sense, Karsh’s photography seeks to display both the truth and the nobility of his subjects, whether it is Marion Anderson in repose singing a piece about the crucifixion to herself as Karsh photographed her as a serene and saint-like figure opposing segregation and discrimination with dignity, or whether it is the defiance of Churchill or Muhammad Ali, their fire visible even in the still frame of the black and white photograph, or whether the light shows an impish smile from George Bernard Shaw or H.G. Wells or a variety of other telling expressions. Karsh was someone who sought to develop a good relationship with those people he photographed, and wanted to gain their trust so that he could see them beneath the mask that they showed to the world, to capture something that other people did not have the chance to see. And though he did not succeed all the time in building a relationship of trust with others, he always tried, to the end of his life, to be someone who others would appreciate to spend hours with as he took photographs, and worthy of the lengthy process of hand-developing the photographs afterwards. The result is certainly worth putting on a table and spending hours with from time to time flipping through the photographs and reflecting on the people in them, and the art of Karsh in controlling the lighting and capturing the decisive moment when the subjects of the photographs let their guard down and showed themselves in timeless photographs that captured their essence and their spirit for all the world to see and remember them by.



[3] See, for example:

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 Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: Regarding Heroes

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Schloss Nymphenburg | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Art Of The Book | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The Oregon Coast | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: Oregon II | Edge Induced Cohesion

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