I seem to fall, always, into the general idea that Karsh wasn't very good. Then I happen upon an exhibition of his work and I remember that it's not so at all, he was very good. Very good indeed. Now that I am old and sophisticated, perhaps it will stick this time around.
The pictures in this show are mostly black and whites, mainly of famous people. I gather that the exhibition will rotate prints in and out, which seems very confusing. If I read the notes properly, Karsh's widow gave a rather large collection to the National Portrait Gallery (why the US one? Karsh was Ottawa based. Surely the Canadians are annoyed!) and this is a subset of those. A few dozen portraits, including some very well known ones.
The dramatic light and large format gives us a wealth of the wrinkles and tiny features that we call "character" in every face. These are nothing like the traditional airbrushed messes we see from lower end commercial guys (Karsh was, after all, commercial). These are all a riot of details, both flattering and unflattering.
Post any of these on an internet forum, and you'd get a huge raft of shit. Plugged up blacks, chopped off limbs, hot spots all over the place. You really need more fill light. You ought to have a hair light. The framing is either too tight or way too loose. Blah blah blah blah. In short, these look nothing like Senior Portraits from LifeTouch Studios.
What Karsh accomplishes with these pictures is wildly beyond the reach of most amateurs, and most low end commercial portraitists. These pictures create a powerful impression that you, the viewer, know the subject a little. Indeed, many of these pictures did a great deal to create our conception of these people. Hitchcock is a haughty auteur, Churchill a glowering lion. This is of course a construct, this is the image of the subject that Karsh chose to make and to keep. Walt Disney was not an affable fellow at all, but this portrait makes us believe that he is.
I think, based on these pictures and on a short film I saw decades ago, that Karsh worked much like a street photographer does. Rather than soaking up the rhythms of the street and learning to feel its flows and patterns, Karsh instead worked with the subject in the same way. He must have learned the patterns, the ebb and flow of emotion and body language in the subject, and was then able to wait.. wait.. and then click at precisely the moment, the decisive moment, the moment when there was a picture, the picture, the one Karsh wanted.
A profile of Snowden I read recently suggests much the same of him.
It is this that separates a good portraitist from a bad one. All the lights in the world, all the strobist studying in the world, won't help you be good if you can't get in synch with the subject, if you can't press the button, click, at the decisive moment.
Conversely, if you can, any god damned lighting at all is fine.
Unfortunately, while lots of people will teach you a bunch of useless shit about lighting, skills that will launch your career right into the bottom end of the portrait market, nobody seems to have any insight into how to work with the subject.