Photographer Yousuf Karsh and the intimacy of the 20th century elite


Muhammad Ali, a man who spoke his truth with a realness captured in photographic images over the decades, wears a pinstriped suit against a black backdrop. His elbows extend out from his body, his fists resting at his sides as he looks directly at the camera. From the other side of Yousuf Karsh’s lens we see a bold, determined and powerful man, a fighter in his late 20s challenging a wrong. The 1970 photograph has viewers looking into, rather than at, Ali. It’s one of the first photographs visitors see in Icons of the 20th Century, on exhibit through September 5 at Bellagio.

Audrey Hepburn in Yousuf Karsh: Icons of the 20th Century

Karsh, a photographer who grew up in Canada, made his mark in 1941 with a photo of Winston Churchill that landed on the cover of Life magazine. His lengthy career led him into the lives of the rich and powerful—political figures, leaders, movie stars, writers, artists and scientists. The rapport he established through his work built a chronology of life in the 20th century. President Lyndon Johnson sits at his desk, pen in hand, a document before, looking at the camera as if he’s in or about to launch into one of his inappropriate and often vulgar stories. His 1945 image of contralto Marian Anderson in her Connecticut home captures the beautifully poised singer as she hummed along to one of her favorite musical pieces.

The usually smiling Mother Teresa in 1988 appears tired and agenda-driven. Whatever was in her mind at the moment, Karsh caught it. A serious portrait of the Marx Brothers, each with a devious smile, reveals a collective wit; they’re in on a joke and we’re not. Poet Robert Frost sits in a chair, tie askew and pants high, petting his dog and talking to someone, an image that feels so close you wonder if his suit is wool or cotton. Hollywood celebrities remain beautifully and predictably dedicated to their glamour shots, Brigitte Bardot, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford among them, but Lauren Bacall ... wow.

For an artist described as the “photographer of choice for the elite,” Karsh also managed to capture the many layers of humanity.

Yousuf Karsh: Icons of the Twentieth Century Through September 5, Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, 702-693-7871.

Photo credit: Princess Elizabeth, 1951, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift­ of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh, © Estate of Yousuf Karsh; Alfred Hitchcock, 1960, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Estrellita Karsh in memory of Yousuf Karsh, © Estate of Yousuf Karsh.

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