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COMPARISON BETWEEN PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHERS

ANNIE LEIBOVITZ YOUSUF KARSH


Capturing famous people’s portraits would no doubt be every photographer’s dream in the world. by Edi Go

Most photographers rarely have opportunities to do so, more likely because their destiny speaks differently rather than lack of creativity or artistic value. I believe all photographers have their own style in producing high quality portraits. Two of the greatest portrait photographers from different eras: Yousuf Karsh (1908 – 2002) and Annie Leibovitz (1949 – present) were among the luckiest photographers who have been given chances to make portraits of famous people. I will compare them and evaluate how their contexts have affected their works, also why they were able to achieve their dreams. Furthermore, I will discuss about their strengths, weaknesses and major challenges in their own era which is accompanied by different art movements.


Annie Leibovitz was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, United States on October 2, 1949. She was the third of Samuel and Marilyn Leibovitz’s six children. Her mother was a modern-dance instructor. Her father was a career Air Force officer and often being transferred from one military base to another during her childhood. In 1967 she enrolled at San Francisco Art Institute as a painting student. At the time, her father was stationed in Philippines at Clark Air Base, the largest American military base outside United States. During the summer in 1968, she went to visit the family in the Philippines and visited Japan where she bought her first camera, a Minolta SR-T 101. She began taking night classes in photography and even summer photography workshops in the following year after her visit to Philippines. Her career in photography began during the bitter end of Vietnam War. The war made her think about leaving her country to go to Israel in 1969 and stay there. Even though she did go to Israel with her camera, she went back to the States and her institute at the beginning of the following year. Leibovitz (2008) stated, “I was a member of the generation that was most vocally opposed to the war, and yet I felt that I should be loyal to my father, who was going in and out of Vietnam on missions. It became apparent pretty soon, however, that becoming an expatriate wasn’t going to solve anything. I had a home and a country.” (p. 14) Then, she began printing pictures in the school darkroom and taking more pictures every day. In the spring of 1970, United States was about to invade Cambodia and students went on strike to protest. Leibovitz was persuaded by people around her to take her photos to the art director of Rolling Stone which was then a small published magazine in San Francisco. One of Leibovitz’s photos of a demonstration was used for the cover of Rolling Stone on June 11, 1970. At the end of the year, she travelled to New York to photograph John Lennon who was being interviewed by Jann Wenner, the co-founder of

Rolling Stone, and it appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone next year, January 21. John Lennon was her first portrait of a famous person. After thirteen years working for Rolling Stone, in April 1983 Leibovitz resigned and became the first contributing photographer for the new Vanity Fair magazine. She kept developing her body of work and capturing more portraits of famous people over the years. She also published her own books and received many awards for her work. She still works for Vanity Fair up to the present. Leibovitz is a mother of three daughters. She was 51 years old when she gave birth to her first daughter, Sarah. Then the twins, Susan and Samuelle, came in May 2005 by a surrogate mother.

zzz Yousuf Karsh was born in Mardin, Armenia, on December 23, 1908. He was the oldest child in the family and had three brothers. His father could neither read nor write and often travelled to many places to buy and sell antiques. His mother was an educated woman and devoted Christian. The nightmare of what later became known as Armenian Genocide began when he was seven years old. Tens of thousands of Armenian men were killed cruelly by the Turkish inhumanities in April 1915. As Karsh (n.d) stated, “Cruelty and torture were everywhere; nevertheless, life had to go on – albeit fearfully – all the while. Ruthless and hideous persecution and illness form part of my earliest memories: taking food parcels to two beloved uncles torn from their homes, cast into prison for no reason, and later thrown alive into a well to perish; the severe typhus epidemic in which my sister died, in spite of my mother’s gentle nursing. My recollections of those days comprise a strange mixture of blood and beauty, of persecution and peace.” Nonetheless, the family lived through the massacres and was allowed to flee in 1922 to Aleppo, Syria. After three years living in a safe place, it was his father who decided to

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send him to Canada, to his uncle. By the time he reached Canada on New Year’s Eve of 1925, he was seventeen years old and only spoke little French and no English. His uncle, George Nakash, who sponsored him as an immigrant, was a reputable photographer and had his own studio in Sherbrook, Quebec. Karsh wanted to be a doctor before he worked for his uncle. But he buried his dream to study medicine and began to be captivated by the art of photography. Karsh had his first small camera from his uncle. He took pictures in the weekends and developed them himself at the studio and often asked his uncle for criticism. One day he photographed a landscape with children playing and gave it to his classmate as a Christmas present. Without his knowledge, his classmate submitted the picture in a contest. Surprisingly it won the first prize. Karsh said that it was his photographic success with his very first camera. In 1928, Karsh moved to Boston where he was introduced by his uncle to John H. Garo, who was a portrait photographer and also an Armenian. It was Garo who encouraged Karsh to learn and study more about art, especially the work of the great masters like Rembrandt and Velazquez. He didn’t learn how to paint or draw, but he looked at the lighting, design and composition. From Garo he learned many of the technical processes and was taught how to find his own style. Karsh (n.d.) quoted Garo, “Understand clearly what you are seeking to achieve and when it is there, record it. Art is never fortuitous.” Succeeding three years of his apprenticeship with Garo, Karsh left Boston in 1931 and moved to Ottawa to establish his own studio. After a short period in Ottawa, he met Saturday Night magazine editor, Bernard Keble Sandwell. He had his photographs printed in Saturday Night for the first time featured by Sandwell’s political and social comments. Karsh was invited to join a theatre called Ottawa Little Theatre which consisted of amateur players. One of the leading actors at the Little Theatre was Scottish


1. Her Majesty, the Queen of England 2. John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Rolling Stone, 1980 3. Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rob Besserer, Cumberland Island, Georgia, 1990 4. Meryl Streep, Rolling Stone 5. Bosnia

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Lord Duncannon, son of the then Governor General, Lord Bessborough and Lady Bessborough. Duncannon persuaded his parents to have their photographs taken by Karsh. Karsh did the portraits successfully and they appeared in many newspapers across Canada. It led the way for Karsh to another great event which was an official visit to Canada in 1936 by the first American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Karsh was invited to photograph the president and other eminent guests like the Prime Minister, Mackenzie King. Since he first met the Prime Minister, Karsh had built a good relationship with him. Karsh (n.d.) described, “It was King who made it possible for me to photograph Winston Churchill (the British Prime Minister) in Ottawa in December 1941. The world’s reception of that photograph – which captured public imagination as the epitome of the indomitable spirit of the British people – changed my life.” According to Dieter Vorsteher (2000), Karsh began to achieve worldwide recognition of his art after the Churchill portrait. He photographed many famous figures around the world who believed in Karsh’s sensibility to portray the essence of their personalities.

zzz Leibovitz and Karsh were introduced to photography and art in a slightly different way but ended up with great results. Leibovitz first was a painting student but she took photography classes and workshops during her education. For Karsh, photography came first but then he taught himself about art by intensively visiting the library. They did not just study photography itself, they also were not afraid to study the work of many great artists before them. Leibovitz and Karsh are both known as perfectionists in their work. But perfectionism probably could also be their weakness. As for Leibovitz, Angela Lambert (1994) disputed, “She is very difficult, I was warned, she’ll be rude, impatient, arrogant - typical criticisms leveled at successful women. To assistants she is a slave driver, her perfectionism

lashing them on to longer days and greater efforts, as she stage manages her shots like one-act plays whose props, costumes and lighting must be flawless.” Similarly, Karsh (n.d.) defined, “Learning many of the photography technical processes made me strive for perfection, time meant nothing and only the final result counted.” Karsh described that being a perfectionist means to not have many friends and need to accept loneliness. In other words, perfectionism affected them in their social life and behaviour.Although they are quite similar in certain ways, the most notable difference in their work that I noticed is nudism. Leibovitz seemed very comfortable in working with nakedness and often directed the subject to be unclothed. However, she managed to transform it into art. She used nudity only when it was necessary. On the contrary, Karsh has never had a single photograph of his subjects naked. It was probably inappropriate by then but in my opinion it is more to his background as he was raised in a religious family. Both Leibovitz and Karsh have had many challenges at work. For Karsh, understanding the subject and mastering the light were the biggest challenges in creating a good portrait. Karsh believed, “To make a significant photo of someone, you have to know a great deal about them – their accomplishments, station in life or contribution to their fellow man.” Leibovitz, on the other hand, thought the subject usually would not make any difficulty. For her, what have been problems were more realistic like the weather and technical matters. For instance, natural light that sometimes worked very well on someone and it would not look the same on the photograph. But she did not deny that there certainly are people who were very difficult to work with, like people who don’t like having their picture taken . Both of them have incredible passion for photography that made them work very hard. I think this is why they were able to achieve what they did. They knew what they wanted and believed in their vision. They would not stop until they got what they wanted to see. They made it happen.

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Leibovitz and Karsh both grew up in a difficult world. Wars and conflicts were surrounding them. But Leibovitz and Karsh did not stop to find their lives in photography. All those things that happened during their early life affected their work as a result. For instance, the massacre as Karsh witnessed in his childhood must have a significant place in his life. It wouldn’t necessarily make him have a dark personality, but I noticed a longing for freedom in creativity which has been done perfectly well throughout his works. Ironically, the massacres came to Karsh without being invited, whereas Leibovitz went to them. She went to Sarajevo in 1993 and Rwanda in the following year. I noted her experiences in photojournalism have made her put more gloomy feeling in her pictures. As Leibovitz (2008) described, she has almost never asked anyone to smile in her pictures . We might wonder what if the context was different? In my opinion, what might have been different is Karsh wouldn’t have come to live with his uncle and be captivated by the art of photography. He would have pursued his dream as a doctor. Likewise, Leibovitz more likely would still be a photographer but without all her struggles during the wars and conflicts, she would not have as much as she has. Through their photographic skills, both Leibovitz and Karsh have shown the importance of art movements like modernism, post modernism and feminism. Karsh’s photographs were particularly reflected modernism. His photographs were contemporary and showed evidence of using modern technology. Leibovitz arrived from post modernism, where she changed from film to digital, along with the feminist movement which started to acknowledge female roles in all aspects of life. Indeed, all the contexts in which they lived worked in a mysterious way but remarkably well presented. Be it advantage or disadvantage, together they have created two great masters of photography that we will remember for a long time. These two photographers were born in different eras but even so they shared the same meaning of photography. To them, it’s all about the light.


1. Albert Eisntein, 1948 2. Winston Churchill, Ottawa, 1941 3. Nelson Mandela, Ottawa, 1990 4. John F. Kennedy, 1960 5. Untitled

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“In photography there is always an opportunity to develop your talent and yourself. There is always discovery, and the use of light is an elusive medium to express the human face.You can understand it, but you rarely master it .” - Yousuf Karsh “Sometimes the light on someone looks incredibly beautiful but it just won’t translate into the photograph. It won’t look the same. Photography is limited. It’s an illustration of what’s going on. Basically, you’re never totally satisfied.” - Annie Leibovitz

References Armenian Genocide History/Timeline. (n.d). Retrieved June 25, 2010, from http://www.genocide1915.info/history/ Bishop, B. (1988). Yousuf Karsh’s Fifty Years of Photography. Paris Voice: The Webzine for English-speaking Parisians, archives 97-86. Retrieved from http://www.parisvoice.com Guthmann, E. (2006). Love, family, celebrity, grief -- Leibovitz puts her life on display in photo memoir. SFGate, home of the San Francisco Chronicle, E-1. Retrieved from http://www.sfgate.com Karsh. Y. (n.d). Biography. Retrieved from http://www.karsh.org Lambert, A. (1994). Talking pictures with Annie Leibovitz: From Jagger to Trump, she summed up the Seventies and Eighties. Her latest subject is Sarajevo. As a new show opens in London, the photographer talks to Angela Lambert. The Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent. co.uk Leibovitz, A. (2008). Annie Leibovitz At Work. London : Jonathan Cape. Vorsteher, D. (2000). Introduction. In Vorsteher, D., & Yates, J. (Eds.), Yousuf Karsh : Heroes of Light and Shadow (pp. 7-9). Berlin: Stoddart.

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Comparison between portrait photographers - Yousuf Karsh and Annie Leibovitz