A photo exhibition by Yousuf Karsh is a study in contrasts between the striking familiarity of the subjects and the uniqueness of his style.
The subjects include Winston Churchill and Muhammad Ali, each with his own piercing glare; Humphrey Bogart in a shroud of cigarette smoke, and Clark Gable in a portrait that would seem more at home over the mantel in Tara than in a Costa Mesa art gallery. There's also Marcel Marceau, Albert Einstein, Andy Warhol, George Bernard Shaw, Georgia O'Keeffe and an unforgettable shot of the Marx Brothers.
Each picture captures not only an image but a personality. Perhaps the most intriguing is the one of Bogart looking slightly away from the camera, holding a cigarette that is billowing smoke. It not only shows you the actor, it evokes every film you ever saw him in.
Karsh, 80, came to prominence in the 1940s. He concentrates on the expressive characteristics of his subjects--the pensive look in the eyes of Einstein, for example, or the quizzical look on Warhol's face. The style is further marked by a rich tonal range: Karsh uses the tones to draw interesting contrasts. Black tones, which go unnoticed in most photography, jump out at the viewer, and subtle lighting technique gives the pictures an extra edge. The portrait of Churchill appears natural, as if no artificial light was used.
The exhibit would benefit from a more generous allotment of space than it has received at the Susan Spiritus Gallery, where the Karsh photos are crammed onto one wall. Still, one leaves the gallery with little doubt that Karsh is a master of the formal portrait. His critics may claim that his work is too commercial to belong in a fine arts gallery. The bottom line, though, is not measured in profit and loss but in whether you are entertained by his pictures. To that end, Karsh is successful.
\o7 Photographs by Yousuf Karsh are on exhibit at the Susan Spiritus Gallery, on the third floor of the Crystal Court section of South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, through May 14. All photographs are 16-by-20 and are mounted on white mount board. Prices range from $1,200 to $2,200. These are signed but not limited editions. Gallery hours: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is free. Information: (714) 549-7550.\f7
Robert Lachman is chief photographer for the Orange County Edition of The Times.