Since the origin of photography in the early 19th century, photographers have been working toward distinguishing themselves as artists, creating a special niche in the world for themselves, and using their works to change the way we see the world around us. Modern society is bombarded with images from every possible corner of the Earth, with every person that has access to a camera thinking of themselves as a photographer. There is a distinct art form that goes into taking impressive and noteworthy photos. To make an impact on society, the photos have to be even more significant. So, what impact, on a whole, has portrait photography had on society? What sorts of people take amazing portraits? In The Life of Yousuf Karsh by Maria Tippett, the background and works of famous Canadian photographer, Yousuf Karsh, are remembered and compiled, showing the skill, talent, and above all, creativity necessary to shoot others well. Articles such as Facing the Camera: Self-portraits of Photographers as Artists by Dawn M. Wilson and others, discuss the influence of portrait photography and its elements in various facets of life. Self-image, and the way we see others has changed over the last hundred years, due partly to the introduction of photography, and those capable of creating these works of art are on the forefront of an image revolution.
Portraits have been around for centuries, but their creation and the styles have changed as time has gone on. In modern times, the majority of portraits are taken by camera, and few are still hand painted. Even since cave paintings, the human form has been recreated. In most cases throughout history, the purpose of portraits is to show importance and status of the individual. Only up until the 20th century, this was essentially the sole purpose of portraits. Most historical images of people only represent the upper class of the population. Every major period in history, from the ancient Greeks, to the classical Renaissance painters, has had their own take on the human form, and how to portray the highest of society in the best light. In the late 19th century, a shift occurred. The average person was being brought into the studio for their time in the limelight. The camera jumped from being nothing more than a tool to capture daily life, to being an artistic element, showing every aspect of the human experience. From behind the lenses to in front of them, art and photography became one.
For Yousuf Karsh, photography was not a life he chose for himself. As an adolescent, he was transported from his home in Armenia to live with his uncle, George Nakash in Canada, who worked as a photographer in a small town in eastern Quebec. Born in 1908, Karsh grew up through times of great despair throughout the world. Under the wing of his uncle, and others, the artistic skill and talent of Yousuf was developed and nurtured. The nature of photography in and of itself is an art form. Many great photographers have dedicated themselves to challenging the traditional idea that photography is all the work of technology, and not the work of an artist. Yousuf and those training him were no different. Those behind the lenses mattered just as much as those actually having their photo taken. “Nakarsh was convinced that a portrait could be infused with the emotions and the skill of the person behind the camera” (The Life of Yousuf Karsh, pg.10). The goal of portrait photography, as much as it is to depict the person you’re photographing, the personality, mood and emotion, as well as those of the photographer are all key elements. John Garo, one of the mentors of Karsh, was said told “his reputation as a photographer just like Nakash’s, rested on his ability to size up his subject quickly, then to capture what he felt to be the subjects inner personality in the resulting portrait” ( The Life of Yousuf Karsh, pg.36). As a young apprentice, Yousuf Karsh attended art schools to practice traditional art applications to improve his photography skills. Throughout most of his life, Karsh focused most of his time photographing who he felt were the most important people of society, often receiving intense criticism. Despite this, many of his greatest works still consisted of casual walk-ins to his studio. The link between art and photography, as it is becoming more apparent, is too large to ignore. The social impact of photography is as well.
Throughout history, the look of someones face, and what it is telling us as we look it, has been key to our survival. The introduction of photography has come sweeping in, in the last 150 years, and taken images of faces and planted them throughout our daily lives. “In Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting(1806), the physician Charles Bell (1774-1842) argued that the key to diagnosis is in the face: the mad man is an outrageous maniac, little more than a savage animal and so lacks some essential human quality in the face” ( Photographing Madness, Richard Lansdown). From this, we can see that no matter what we think, we as humans will always make judgments about one another based on our faces. The goal of portrait photography, is to move away from that discrimination, and view others the way the photographer wants them to be seen. In many cases, such as media, it can have negative connotations. Companies will perpetuate the traditional standard of beauty using portraits, leaving the average, and honestly beautiful person, feeling as though they don’t match. In other cases, photography has allowed us to combat these intolerance of life. Lise Funderburg say in her article: “”I love the intimacy of a close-up portrait because it captures the essence of a person: It’s not about their clothes or their environment — there are no hints of social status” ( The Changing Face Of America, Lise Funderburg).. Before modern photography, there was a much larger divide between the upper classes of society, and the lower classes. There was also more of a divide between those thought of worth less in society, such as those who has mental illnesses. This shows, and there are other cases as well, how portrait photographers and their work can change the way we view each other and equality among groups of people.
As a whole, photographers have worked incredibly hard to gain the credibility they have. Technology isn’t all that goes into taking photos. Art has taken its rightful place alongside. In terms of society, photography has both a positive and negative influence. On one side, it changes the way we see each other, and makes us more accepting of others. On the other, it can make us more critical of ourselves, striving for the ‘ideal’. In the end, photography and those who create it are here to stay, and have made a special place for themselves in the world.
- “A BRIEF HISTORY OF PORTRAITURE.” . Fabulous Noble, n.d. Web. 18 May 2014. <http://www.fabulousnoble.com/a-brief-history-of-portraiture>.
- Gurewitsch, Matthew. “Karsh Reality.” Smithsonian 39.9 (2008): 66-69. Canadian Reference Centre. Web. 20 May 2014.
- WILSON, DAWN M. “Facing The Camera: Self-Portraits Of Photographers As Artists.” Journal Of Aesthetics & Art Criticism 70.1 (2012): 56-66. Academic Search Premier. Web. 8 May 2014.
- Richard. “Photographing Madness.” History Today 61.9 (2011): 47-53. Academic Search Premier. Web. 12 May 2014.
- Funderburg, Lise. “The Changing Face Of America.” National Geographic 224.4 (2013): 76-91. Canadian Reference Centre. Web. 12 May 2014.
- “PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY From the Victorians to the present day.” . © National Portrait Gallery, London, n.d. Web. 9 May 2014. <http://www.npg.org.uk/assets/files/pdf/learning/schools_wide_angle.pdf>.
- Tippett, Maria . The Life of Yousuf Karsh. Toronto, On.: House of Anansi Press Inc., 2007. Print.