Wednesday, December 2, 2009

AT 11.2 Karsh - Jonah O'Neil - Group A - Analog Techniques

Title of photo: Pablo Casals, 1954

Link to photo:

On the technical side of things, Karsh was a master of the "inspection" technique for developing negatives, which is suited for 4x5" and larger film, and involves developing negatives by hand, traditionally under a green safelight, to produce optimal highlights in specific areas of the image. Karsh used this technique to create negatives that have significant tonality. "Pablo Casals, 1954" definitely shows significant tonality, which can be seen in the stone wall, the floor, and in subject's clothing.

Like the majority of Karsh's work, this photo is high in contrast - the highlights are very bright and the shadows are quite dark - for example, the highlights around the subjects head, shoulders, and arms versus the shadows on his back. So I'm going to go out on a limb here, and suggest that he used the magenta filter. He may have employed split contrasting because, while the figure in the chair shows quite a bit of contrast, the wall in front of him does not show a lot of contrast.

It looks to me that Karsh dodged the stone wall quite since it is so much brighter than the dark areas in the photo. It would also appear that he burned in the area of the wall around the subject's head, shoulders and torso, giving the subject a frame of darker tones, and separating him from the background quite nicely. That's pretty cool now that I'm looking at the photo again. Huh. Inspiring even.

I think this is a great composition. To begin with, it's a bit of an anomaly for Karsh to have his subject facing away from the camera. But this makes sense considering Pablo Casals' background and what Karsh wished to portray. Casals was a Spanish cellist who refused to perform in any county that officially recognized the Franco dictatorship. As Karsh put it, Casals was a"voluntary prisoner", and the setting and composition of this photo certainly brings to mind a prisoner sitting in a cell. And the fact that Casals is facing away from the viewer suggests that he has turned his back on Franco and those who recognize him.

Other compositional elements that I like are:
- The implied line from the window to Casals which suggests at first that it is light from the window that is illuminating the subject and the floor, but which must have been from another source.

- The natural frame along the left side made by what might either be a curtain or part of a door frame, giving the impression that we are peaking in on the subject and catching a private moment.

- The tension caused by the back chair legs extending just beyond the edge of the frame.

- The tension caused by not lining the chair up with the lines on the stone floor.

- The tension caused by the shadow underneath the subject and the chair, because that's not a shadow being cast by the subject himself. I can't for the life of me figure out what that shadow is.

- The aforementioned burning around Casals providing a nice frame for the subject.

- The fly sitting on the back of the chair. This is hard to see in the photo online, but at the WAG it was actually visible. Hard to say, though, if Karsh managed to capture that elusive moment and got behind the fly's mask to portray its true self. I bet he did.


  1. I think you are right about the fly, Jonah. I watched a special on Karsh from the 80's a few weeks back on PBS. In the special his assistant said that this portrait was used as a test for any new assistants Karsh would interview and potentially hire. In the original there were 5 or 6 flies, and the potential assistant had to find and out all the flies, thus proving their ability to be observant. I find it interesting that Karsh chose to keep (at least) one of the flies in his public prints.

  2. The fly also refused to acknowledge the Franco dictatorship. That's a very patriotic Spanish fly.