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Look at This! A Portrait of the Artist

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This post is part of a series called Look at This! Great Photographs Revisited.
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With this photograph of author HG Wells, Yousuf Karsh has created something visually striking and dare I say it, intimidating. Let’s look at why.

Portrait of HG Wells by Yousuf KarshPortrait of HG Wells by Yousuf KarshPortrait of HG Wells by Yousuf Karsh
Author HG Wells by Yousuf Karsh taken October 1943. From Library and Archives Canada via Flickr.

What Can We See in This Photograph

On the face of things, what we have is a black and white portrait, with the camera looking up from just below the waist. Black and white photos are synonymous with emotion and mood, and this shot doesn’t disappoint.

The subject’s posing is an interesting one. Traditionally, portrait photographers use eyes as the focus of the picture but here, Karsh has Wells deliberately turned away, and indeed, we can barely see his eye. Wells was an outspoken socialist, could Karsh have been commenting on this by having him face left? 

Karsh was well known for photographing people ‘as they are’:

"Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize." – Karsh from Karsh Portfolio 1967

Here he shows Wells to be strong and confident in his lifted chin and upright pose, but also, still somewhat of a mystery; facing away from the camera and concealing his hand in his pocket. There is only a hint of background, and it forms a column of light tone flanked by black borders. This strong vertical line creates a feeling of real solidity, and reinforces solemn and thoughtful standing pose.

The lighting also helps with this, we almost lose his left and right side to the strips of shadow, leaving just Wells’ head and shoulders illuminated and dead centre. These dominant lines of light guide us to Wells’ distinctive profile. This puts me in mind of suspenseful Alfred Hitchcock films, or even an old fashioned Cameo brooch!

About the Photographer and Photograph

The photograph was taken by Yousuf Karsh October 1943. Light was a big part of his distinctive style, including often lighting his subject’s hands separately. He’s famous for photographing well known personalities of his era, including Winston Churchill, whose portrait featured on the cover of Life Magazine and it is claimed to be the most reproduced photograph ever.

Born in the then Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) he moved to Quebec, Canada at the age of 16 to live with his uncle, a photographer.

Your Turn! A Portrait of ‘Beatrice Lillie’

Another fantastic piece by Yousuf Karsh. This photograph shows actress and singer Beatrice Lillie. Given that she would often perform dressed as a man, does the reflection shown in the photograph represent a conflicting duality between two personas?

beatrice lilliebeatrice lilliebeatrice lillie
Actor and singer, Beatrice Lillie by Yousuf Karsh, taken March 1958. From Library and Archives Canada via Flickr.

If you're unsure of what to look for in a Photograph, then check out Dawn Oosterhoff's excellent article: How to Read a Photograph and let us know what you see in this image.

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