Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Photographer Deathmatch: Karsh vs. Avedon

Yousuf Karsh and Richard Avedon were two of the most important and influential photographers active during the 20th century. Both photographers created images of people, both photographers worked primarily in black & white, and I consider both among my most important influences. However, both men approached their subjects in a dramatically different fashion.

Yousuf Karsh was a self-described "hero-worshipper" who is responsible for many of the seminal images of 20th century luminaries. Karsh utilized dramatic theatrical lighting and carefully considered poses to emphasize the noble and heroic aspects of his subjects, whether they be as famous as Winston Churchill or as obscure as a Ford assembly-line worker.

"I am satisfied that no purpose would be served if I were concsiously to seek to convert what would be a portrait of greatness into a moment of weakness." - Karsh

Albert Einstein
photographed by Y. Karsh in 1948
(original silver gelatin print on display
at the Frist in Nashville! Go see it!)

Karsh did not seek to unnearth his subject's vulnerabilities. Karsh sought to elevate the archetypal qualities within his subjects to the level of immortality. Karsh did not photograph his subjects as an intimate: he managed these individual's likeness to fit an idealized collective image held by the public. Karsh portraits are iconic, but perhaps slightly impersonal.

Richard Avedon, on the other hand, described his approach in the following quote:

"I've worked out a series of 'no's.' No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative. And all these no's force me to the 'yes.' I have a white background. I have the person I'm interested in and what happens between us."

Avedon's portraits have been accused of being unflattering and austere. Avedon probably would've been fired from Glamour Shots. However, the best of his work conveys a sense of immediacy, intimacy, and insight that benefits from this raw approach. Consider the following portrait of Marilyn Monroe:

Marilyn Monroe
Photographed by R. Avedon in 1957

This photograph was taken at the end of a long shoot in which Marilyn "did Marilyn Monroe." At the end of the session, Avedon witnessed a letdown in which the public persona of Marilyn dissipated and the tragic Norma Jean briefly appeared. This portrait is the antithesis of the Karsh approach: Avedon took a public figure and gave us a deeply personal fleeting glance into her profoundly tortured soul.

Richard Avedon had a gift for creating an intimacy in his sessions where subjects let down their guard and allowed him to capture essential, elemental truths.

"When the sitting is over, I feel kind of embarrassed about what we've shared. Its so intense."

As a photographer of portraits, I possess the ability to elevate my subjects or to dig down to their elemental truths. In reality, almost any portrait sitting is a combination of both impulses blended in measure. The balance is tipped by the goals and personality of my subject, by my mood and mindset at that moment, and to a certain extent by chance.

One of the things I find fascinating about wedding photography is how a woman is both completely unique, and yet capable of assuming the archetypal role of bride in a timeless ritual. In an instant my subject may transform from a vulnerable and unique human being into The Bride: a beautiful and confident role-player in a classic drama. One moment I must be Karsh: elevating a bride's timeless beauty. The next moment I'm Avedon: capturing a woman's moments of profound intimacy and raw emotional content.

What do you think? Photographers: with which artist do you identify more closely? Everyone: which artist would you rather have had photograph you?


Maurice Ramirez said...

Congrats on the blog Evan! I'm a big fan of your work but I especially enjoyed this Photographer Deathmatch entry. Hope you update often and with lots of non-assignment entries.

-maurice said...

Avedon is the man. Period.

pasph said...

If a vision comes to you follow it
If not paint what you see
But i really always wished to see the real me in others eyes