The Portrait Master by Jack Drafahl
I can’t stand
I’ve got a
story to tell and
I just have to tell
tell stories about
the one that got
away, or show
pictures of the
keepers, why can’t
do the same?
It all started years ago when
I was a student at Brooks
Institute of Photography. In
almost every class I took,
the instructors would show
examples from the masters
of photography. I admit the
photos were great, but I never
really understood why these
masters were so revered.
After graduation I remained
at the school as an assistant
instructor and staff photographer.
I was assigned to photograph
dignitaries as they visited
the school so the photos could be used
for news releases and public relations.
One of these master photographers,
Yousuf Karsh, came to visit the school
for three days of lecturing and a one-man
photo exhibition. The school asked me
to follow him around for three days and
take promotional photos. I’ve got to be
honest—portrait photography is my least
favorite subject. When it came to taking
portraits, I preferred shooting the profile
of a ladybug on a leaf. Needless to say, this
assignment did not excite me.
Mr. Brooks introduced us, and for the
next three days not more than a dozen
words were exchanged between us. Mr.
Karsh didn’t seem very different from any
other professional photographer. He had
the answers to the students’ questions and
told some interesting stories, but I still
couldn’t see why they referred to him as
one of the great masters.
On the evening of the third day, Mr.
Karsh had a reception celebrating his oneman
show. I photographed him with several
dignitaries and as he autographed his
new book. As the event started to wind down and the crowd thinned, he walked
over and asked me, “Would you like to
take my photograph?” Just what did he
think I had been doing for the last three
days? I knew he must have had something
else in mind by asking me to do a portrait
of one of the masters of portrait photography.
I eagerly said “yes,” as I correctly
assumed you never say no to a master.
He took one look at my camera and
asked what kind of film I was using. “Tri-
X,” I answered, while fumbling with the
camera controls. “Rate the film at ASA
1200,” he answered back. Well, there went
the rest of the shots on the roll, as I had
rated them at ASA 400. I sure hoped that
these shots would be worth ruining my
Before I could say or do anything, he
told me to set the camera at 1/125 at f/4. He
leaned against an archway and asked what
I saw in the frame. I described the image
as best I could, and he then directed me to
pan a little to the left and move in a foot.
As soon as he saw me fine-tune the focus,
he went into a pose and told me to shoot.
I have to admit, the shot looked great. In
about 30 seconds my film counter read an
additional five exposures, and Mr. Karsh
quickly disappeared into the crowd.
That’s when it started to sink in, and
I now understood what makes a true
master of photography. Yousuf Karsh had
used another photographer to take a selfportrait.
He operated all the camera controls,
and me, and orchestrated the entire
photo session. He didn’t even have to be
behind the camera. The most amazing
part was that the resulting images didn’t
depict my shooting style, but instead had
that distinctive “Karsh” look. Even though
I put my name on the photo credits, I will
always remember the invisible credit line
that reads, “Yousuf Karsh, master of photography.”
Jack and Sue Drafahl make their home in the
Pacific Northwest, where they operate the Oregon
Coast Digital Center, an enhanced learning facility
featuring in-depth digital courses. Class size is
limited to four students to guarantee personalized
instruction on digital editing and specialized
topics. You can contact them at www.jackandsue