Ours is an age saturated with more images than at any other time in history. Everything is grist for the camera’s eye, thanks in large part to the cellphone, which allows one to take endless shots of everyone and everything in sight. It is all the more aesthetically enlightening, then to look at the work of Yousuf Karsh, a trained professional with an ability to translate a moment of observation into a visual insight.

Up until his death, in 2002, Karsh was considered a master among portrait photographers and shot many of the notables of his day, primarily in classic black and white. His subjects included Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King Jr., and Winston Churchill. (His likeness of the wartime P.M., who resembles a pouting but extremely intelligent child, adorns the British five-pound note.)

Karsh, who escaped the Armenian genocide by migrating to Canada in 1923, and whose father couldn’t read or write, maintained a certain humility before the camera and about the people, however starry, that he photographed. His portraits are always elegant, formal, and as far from the provocative vision of a Diane Arbus or the celebratory, slightly fawning approach of an Annie Leibovitz as is possible to be. His interest was less in glamorizing a famous face than in revealing the “the soul behind it,” in Jean-Luc Godard’s phrase.

Assembled here is a portfolio of women, many of them actresses in their youth, as seen through Karsh’s revealing lens. Some results are more unexpected than others, especially when he captures Anna Magnani, with a certain feral quality—or, conversely, Audrey Hepburn, whose delicacy and grace are conveyed in profile, featuring her defined jawline and her long neck.

Although Karsh is not beyond responding to the sexually suggestive in actresses like Brigitte Bardot, whose “Come and get me” quality is highlighted by her bustier and her hands on her hips, or the high-cheekboned Charlotte Rampling, who wears an off-the-shoulder black dress, there remains something uncoy and straightforward about these pictures.

Interestingly, although these photos are carefully set up, they seem uncontrived, shot as they are with empathy and without preconceptions. My favorite of the bunch is the portrait of a glowing and unmade-up Ingrid Bergman, looking impossibly pure and innocent. But lest you think Karsh was all about the mystery of his craft (“Character, like a photo, develops in darkness”), the man clearly had a sense of humor: “The trouble with photographing beautiful women,” he quipped, “is that you never get into the darkroom until after they’re gone.”

Daphne Merkin is the author of numerous books, including the memoir This Close to Happy: A Reckoning with Depression and the novels Enchantment and 22 Minutes of Unconditional Love