Profound Portraits by Yousuf Karsh

Picture yourself in the middle of a room with the most famous people of this century. Winston Churchill is starring defiantly at you, to your right Andy Warhol holds a paintbrush, and President Clinton is behind you. If you are having a difficult time imagining this, look no further than an exhibit of works by Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh.

World renowned as a portraitist, Karsh has taken pictures of the world's leading artists, actors, writers, politicians, and scientists in a career that spans more than 60 years. Through Oct. 20, the Museum of Fine Arts Boston is staging an retrospective of 120 of his most famous photographs titled, "Karsh Portraits: The Searching Eye." A stroll through the gallery elicits recognition of many of the mostly black-and-white images.

Karsh's unique ability to capture the essence of his famous subjects makes this more than a collection of portraits. The use of dramatic lighting and unconventional poses evokes an unstudied mood in each image. Often photographed in their milieu, his subjects seem at ease with their surroundings, enabling their personalities to surface through the photographs.

The sharp focus in the image of Ernest Hemingway reveals every detail. Hemingway's gaze is fixed on a point to the left of the camera. He appears to be looking beyond the viewer. His brow is furrowed; his features are weather-beaten; and his broad shoulders fill the bottom half of the frame. All these attributes add up to suggest the immensity of the man and his talent.

In contrast, Audrey Hepburn's portrait hints at an innocence and sensitivity. The angle is dramatic. Her eyes look down while the tilt of her head highlights her delicate features. Her shoulders don't even come close to filling the frame as in Hemingway's portrait. She seems to express the elegance and grace of another era.

Karsh's portraits reveal new insights into the character behind the name. With a craftsman's skill and an artist's eye, he renders his subjects in a familiar light.

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