Site Map | Français | Contact Us

Lights! Camera! Personality! Karsh of Ottawa Collection


Of all the technical aspects of image taking, Karsh was the most interested in lighting. Although it is likely that he used some light units at his uncle’s studio in Sherbrooke, Karsh started to experiment with artificial illumination in Ottawa in the early 1930s.

Foyer of the Ottawa Little Theatre, 1933; watching the illumination of the stage during theatrical productions at the Ottawa Little Theatre, Karsh became fascinated with artificial lighting, and began to experiment with the application of lighting units to photography. (Courtesy J. Fielder)
John Garo worked only with natural daylight, which dictated the rhythm of life at his photographic studio. The daylight not only determined sitting hours, but also limited the ways in which subjects could be positioned. It affected the atmosphere during the session and influenced the outcome. Karsh, however, found artificial lighting fascinating and challenging; he wanted to master it, and make it work for him. He was particularly interested in stage lighting, and learned new techniques watching his first wife Solange direct plays for the Ottawa Drama League. Throughout his career Karsh consistently employed artificial light in his studio and on location.

The main studio lighting unit (CSTM 1997.0313)

The collection donated by Yousuf Karsh to the Museum contains seven lighting units from his studios in Ottawa and New York. The main lighting unit (1997.0313), the last used by Karsh in his Chateau Laurier studio, which opened in 1973, was produced in the early 1970s. The unit consists of a stand made by Dyna Lite Inc., a light box manufactured by Colortran Inc., and a Mylar diffusing screen. Assembled, it is almost two metres high, half a metre long, and almost half a metre wide. The light box is painted navy blue on the outside, white inside. It is furnished with five tungsten 250 W, 120 V white ECA photoflood bulbs with a colour temperature of 3200º K. The bulbs were made by the General Electric Company. During a typical photographic session, the unit stood about one and a half metres to the right of the camera, and was placed slightly behind it.

The light from the unit was combined with fill lighting (1997.0314). The fill unit, also made about 1970, is quite similar to the main light. Painted navy blue and white, it consists of a Dyna Lite stand, a Natural Lighting Corporation light box, and a Mylar diffusing screen. It is slightly smaller than the main light and is furnished with three General Electric ECA clear bulbs. In the standard lighting arrangement, this unit was placed behind the camera, about one metre to the left.

A fill lighting unit (CSTM 1997.0314)

A homemade backdrop (CSTM 1997.0317.003)

Karsh did not arrange the stage for photographic sessions himself. The equipment was always set up beforehand by the photographer’s assistant. First, the assistant checked all bulbs, and placed the main and fill lighting units in a standard arrangement. Then the assistant would assemble the backdrops. At the beginning of his career, Karsh used an old Canadian army blanket as a background for his images. He later purchased stands from the American Photographic Instrument Company Inc., and asked his technician and librarian Hella Graber to make several velvet backdrops (1997.0352),
   A back lighting unit    (CSTM 1997.0315)
which he combined with homemade wooden or vinyl backgrounds (1997.0317). Large backdrops were placed behind the subject’s chair, and smaller screens near the edge of the large backgrounds. Hidden between them or directly behind the subject was a small one-bulb light (1997.0315) made about 1970 by the Acme Lite Manufacturing Company, which illuminated the background and separated it from the subject. The back light came with two fibreglass cloths. One or both cloths, fitted on a metal diffuser, were placed over the light to soften it as required.

A spot light (CSTM 1997.0312)

After setting up the main, fill, and back lights, the assistant placed one spot light (1997.0312) on each side of the subject. Close to the spots were two stands (1997.0316), which supported handmade, black cardboard cards. The cards were fitted with a homemade hook resembling a coat hanger, and revolved 360 degrees on the stand. These were primarily used to block the light from shining into the camera lens. Unfortunately, none of these cards remain, as they were thrown away when the studio closed in 1992. Karsh was adamant on illuminating his sessions with the lighting units. He disliked electronic flash lights, or as he called them, “strobe lights,” but used them on location when the electric power necessary for the floods was not readily available.

Just before the session was to start, when all the lights were set up, Karsh would come to examine the stage. He tested the set-up with his assistant posing as the subject, and would often rearrange the lights. He might switch the main and fill units around, with the main on the left side, and the fill on the right of the sitter, or he might remove the fill light altogether. He might turn on one spot light, or keep both off during the entire session. The final set-up of the lights always depended on the atmosphere of the session and the mood of the sitter.

André Malraux, 1954; while photographing Malraux, Karsh dimmed the lights and focused them on one side of the face, to make the writer’s nose look smaller. (Courtesy J. Fielder)

Karsh was ultimately interested in the humanity of his subjects. He wanted to depict their souls, not their accurate appearance, and used the lights to achieve this goal. For example, while photographing Marcel Boussac he moved the lights farther back than usual in order to fade the entrepreneur’s boldness.
Turban (Betty Low), 1936; when photographing a woman, Karsh would soften the lights to smooth the face. (Courtesy J. Fielder)
The lighting on André Malraux was dimmed and focused to the side to take attention away from his large nose. It took particularly long to pose Benjamin Britten’s jowly face with the lights, to make the composer look healthier. Karsh also applied different light formulas for men and women. When he photographed women, Karsh always used softer light and turned the main and fill units slightly away, directing the spot lights on the hair or shoulders to reduce the appearance of facial lines and wrinkles. If in the final results the subject still looked cold or unapproachable, and the personality that Karsh wanted to reveal was not reproduced by the camera, he would refuse to print the photo.