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Look at This! Where There's Smoke

This post is part of a series called Look at This! Great Photographs Revisited.
Look at This! A Portrait of the Artist
Look at This! Leisure by the Waterside

I was introduced to the photography of Yousuf Karsh when I was eleven years old. That was when I understood the difference between taking snapshots with my Kodak Instamatic and making photographs. Karsh’s work has been my beacon in photography ever since. You would think, then, that reading Karsh’s portrait of Peter Lorre would be easy; however, it’s anything but that. Rather, because I admire Karsh’s work as much as I do, this reading demanded that I proceed carefully, considering my context as the viewer.

Portrait of Peter Lorre
Peter Lorre by Yousuf Karsh, 1946 (Source: Library and Archives Canada e010751663, ref. MIKAN 3846144)

Peter Lorre by Yousuf Karsh, 1946

I can’t help but look first at the subject’s eye in this photograph. It’s the brightest spot in the photograph—indeed, the only fully lit area of the photograph. But with just one look, I can’t tell what I’m looking at. Karsh, a virtuoso with portrait lighting, has outlined his subject with the gentlest rim light, and inside the gentle shapes and folds of the shadows, Karsh has lit the side of the subject’s face with an unusual source of light placed under the subject’s cheek. Karsh then uses the glass on top of the light to soften the light and slide it up and over the subject’s face like a piece of fine silk. The effect is disconcerting and distorting. We typically avoid under lighting in a portrait, referring to it as “monster lighting” because of the ghoulish effect that kind of lighting can create. Also, the glass distorts the subject’s cheek, making it seem bigger than it is, and leaves a rectangular outline on his face. How can we do anything but look closer to make sense of what we are seeing? But as we study the image, the light and shape on the subject’s face shift and change even as we think we have the image fixed.

From the subject’s face, my eye is drawn to the next brightest light, which is on the subject’s hand. Again, Karsh has charmed the light, giving us a gentle outline of the subject’s hand, but an outline that arches and stretches just enough to light the subject’s forefinger and thumb, which are holding a lit cigarette with building ash. The light also, barely, lights the smoke emanating from the cigarette. Surely the smoke is shifting and the ash growing even as we look at them—at least so it seems. All is still in the photograph but for that smouldering ash and faint wisp of smoke. Karsh didn’t stop time with this photograph; he captured moments of it and squeezed them into the frame of the photograph, letting the seconds stretch into hours that never end.

What was Karsh telling us with this portrait? Karsh used composition to ensure we would look at that ghoulish portrayal of the subject’s face. If we lose our way as we navigate the photograph, the vertical lines of the subject’s bent arm and the semi-circular rim of light at the bottom right of the photograph send our eyes back up to the subject’s face: a face that shifts and eludes us despite the subject’s resting stillness; a face that is as alive as the ash and smoke on the cigarette; a face obscured and distorted by barely visible objects that are the only inanimate, still, and hard items in the photograph.

The context of this photograph provides the clues. The subject is Peter Lorre, a Hungarian-American actor best known for his portrayal of villainous, sinister characters. Lorre was the dark, unknowable foreigner in thriller and suspense movies of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Karsh wrote of taking this portrait:

The movie legend of Peter Lorre was that of the timorous, sometimes menacing, sometimes bumbling sidekick of the archvillain. He turned out to be a gemütlich Viennese gentleman of wit and culture. This photograph was taken after our dinner together. When I observed the effect of the lamp on his face, it seemed to synthesize every character he played in American films. —Yousuf Karsh, A Fifty-Year Retrospective

Karsh was a brilliant portrait artist, a lighting genius, and a perfectionist. He was also fascinated with, and captivated by, fame. There can be no doubt that Karsh was fully aware of every nuance and effect he was creating in this photograph. There can also be no doubt that his intent was ultimately to flatter Peter Lorre. Karsh has played with “monster lighting” to illuminate a man known for playing monsters. But Karsh has also used his mastery with lighting to create a ground that breathes and flows with unending time. Peter Lorre the monster is framed by Peter Lorre the “gemütlich Viennese gentleman of wit and culture.”

Your Turn: Humphrey Bogart by Yousuf Karsh, 1946

Your assignment is to read another of Karsh’s portraits, this one of Humphrey Bogart. Share your reading of that photograph in the comments below. If you need some tips on how to describe what you see, read the first article in this series, How to Read a Photograph.

Portrait of Humphrey Bogart photographed by Yousuf Karsh
Humphrey Bogart by Yousuf Karsh, 1946 (Source: Library and Archives Canada PA-212506, ref. MIKAN 3198634, 3628547)
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