Matthew Gurewitsch on “Karsh Reality”

Mathew Gureswitch
Author of Karsh Reality, Mathew Gurewitsch. J. Henry Fair

What drew you to this story?
I was drawn to the challenge of a subject that was virtually unknown to me. Of course, I had seen many Karsh portraits before. But in the past, I had always looked at the sitter without giving much thought to the photographer. It was fun to turn the camera around, so to speak.

What surprised you the most while covering this story?
I was flabbergasted, honestly, to think how widely Karsh traveled. Getting around wasn't so easy in his day. I was surprised, too, that, with the success he enjoyed, he might have become a prima donna, but he never did.

Were there any interesting moments that didn't make it to the final draft?
There's a vast body of work—photojournalism, essentially, but also some experimental stuff—that simply did not fit the portrait of the photographer I had been asked to write. A comprehensive appreciation of Karsh would have to take this material into account. But I can't say I feel that we short-changed Karsh, really. It was portraiture that brought him fame and fortune, and it is portraiture for which he is remembered.

In your article you discuss Karsh's detractors. In your opinion, what defines Karsh's work as fine art instead of pop culture kitsch?
So much of such pigeonholing is in the eye of the beholder. What some people call kitsch may be based on deliberate, painstaking, and highly self-conscious craftsmanship, as is the case with Karsh. He delivered a quality product. He had total command of his medium. Maybe that's enough to classify it as fine art, which is clearly what Karsh was aiming for. But in a rough-and-tumble age like ours, the very ideal of "fine art" seems a little dowdy and passé. Our taste generally is for portraiture that is much livelier, less preoccupied with the dignified facade. When we see recent glamour photographs à la Karsh, we usually suspect an ironic or at least "knowing" intent. Speaking for myself, I don't think I'd call Karsh a fine artist, because the label sounds so lofty, and his work, for all its aspirations, was intended for the mass market (as exemplified by LIFE magazine). But for the very reasons I raise as objections, the label may be exactly right.

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