Karsh At 100


Globe and Mail
September 27, 2008

He photographed presidents and monarchs, Hollywood stars and Calgary
cowboys. Now, six years after Yousuf Karsh’s death, a sprawling
exhibition provides an intriguing picture of the photographer himself,
complete with his own writings on his most storied subjects. Simon
Houpt reports from Boston


BOSTON — Where did Yousuf Karsh get his real start in photography? It
may seem an absurd question: Every Canadian of a certain age knows the
tale of Karsh’s leap into the pantheon when, one fateful December
day in 1941, given a mere five minutes to capture an image of
Winston Churchill in the Speaker’s Chamber at the House of Commons,
he snatched a cigar out of his subject’s mouth and quickly snapped
a portrait that was electric with indignation.

But at a press preview this week for an exhibition at Boston’s Museum
of Fine Arts celebrating Karsh’s centenary, his widow, Estrellita,
argued that the roots of his artistry first took hold in this
New England city, where he spent three years apprenticed to the
photographer John Garo at a studio on Boylston Street.

"For Yousuf, it happened in Boston and it remained in Boston," said
Estrellita Karsh, who noted that her late husband, after moving to the
city in 1928, had spent long hours at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA)
studying light, design, and composition; he called the museum his
"spiritual home" and his "university."

"When he was here, he was poor, and where do you go? You go to places
that are free, and luckily the museum was free. He was a young man who
really hadn’t seen much beauty in his youth – he was in the [Armenian]
massacres. Can you imagine how he felt, coming to a museum, and seeing
all the beautiful things? He remembered it, and it nourished him for
the rest of his life."

With a twinkle in her eye and a spitfire spirit that charmed the press,
Estrellita Karsh recalled that working with Garo gave her husband the
opportunity to meet with and observe the private behaviour of some
of the elder photographer’s friends, including Serge Koussevitzky
and Arthur Fiedler. "It was Prohibition, and little Yousuf would
mix the bathtub gin, and once these people were imbibing, he would
stand at the top of the stairs, ears open, and he listened to them,
and he decided these were people he wanted to portray."

The Prohibition story has been told many times before, but still drew
a knowing and nostalgic laugh from the assembled guests. (Estrellita,
a petite woman in her late 70s, possessed of a fierce intelligence
and a sharp smile, plays crowds like a virtuoso violinist. And Boston
loves her: She and Yousuf moved here from Ottawa in 1997; he died in
2002, but she still calls it home.)

Six years after Karsh’s death, there seems precious little to discover
about his life or his career. Still, the exhibition, titled Karsh 100:
A Biography in Images, aims to provide a fuller picture of his output.

It offers not just his famous pictures of famous people but also lesser
known works such as the production stills he shot for an Ottawa theatre
company in the 1930s and portraits of Canadian factories in the 1950s
for use in annual reports. And though there are mementoes and artifacts
from Karsh’s life – one of his cameras, and his trademark hat, loaned
by the Canada Science and Technology Museum – the exhibition’s notion
of biography is slim. Like most of the portraits he produced over a
career that spanned more than 60 years, it is consumed with surfaces,
and excels in the same area as its subject: the burnishing of myth.

For though Churchill’s family reportedly loathed that iconic portrait,
Karsh quickly gained a reputation as an artist whose work would flatter
his subjects. Anne Havinga, the MFA’s senior curator of photographs,
says he "had an uncanny ability to make his very famous sitters feel
comfortable, and feel that this photographer could secure their
reputation, and not make a picture of some aspect they’d rather
not reveal."

Together with Jerry Fielder, the director of the Karsh Estate and a
former assistant to the photographer, Havinga has curated a show that
traces "little Yousuf’s" fast rise from apprentice to unofficial court
photographer (the Queen sat for him five times, and he photographed
every U.S. President from Truman to Clinton) and the portraitist of
choice for literary celebrities (Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard
Shaw, Carl Sandburg, W.H. Auden) and film stars (Audrey Hepburn,
Anita Ekberg, Humphrey Bogart and many others).

Karsh’s extraordinary career as an independent photographer began
in 1930, when he left Garo’s tutelage and set up his own studio in
Ottawa, choosing to live in the nation’s capital for the access to,
as Estrellita says, "people who mattered."

He joined the Ottawa Drama League, which gave him two major gifts:
After having worked only in natural light under Garo, he was
astonished to discover the possibilities of incandescent, theatrical
lighting. The theatre’s ties to Ottawa society also proved beneficial,
its members including Lord Duncannon, the son of Lord Bessborough,
the Governor-General, who in 1935 became the first official to sit
for Karsh.

(The theatre was also where Karsh met the actress and dancer Solange
Gauthier; the two wed in 1939 and were happily married until she died
of cancer in 1960. He met Estrellita in 1961, and they married the
following year.)

In short order, William Lyon Mackenzie King became Karsh’s patron,
which led to assignments of increasing importance, including a 1936
photo of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

But it was the Churchill snap that made his career and, according to
legend, also helped restore the flagging spirit of the British people
during a particularly low point in their battle with Germany. The
exhibition smartly highlights how Karsh recognized not only the power
of the images he made but also the importance of their back stories;
his photographs, after all, didn’t just market themselves. In a glass
case a few feet from the Churchill portrait, the MFA has included a
two-page typed statement by Karsh entitled Now It Can Be Told About
Churchill’s Portrait, in which he retails the story of that famous
five-minute sitting.

"When magazines and others asked for a print of this picture, this
statement would go out with it, so they would have the story as well,"
observes Havinga.

Less than two years later, he travelled to London by boat, in a
wartime convoy, to photograph members of the Royal Family, including
the 16-year-old Princess Elizabeth. His statement about the sitting
of King George VI, typed on Savoy Hotel stationery, which is included
in the show, was used as the basis of an essay that accompanied the
reproduction of the photo in later books. When Karsh was summoned
back to London in 1951, the assignment was immortalized in a British
tabloid press clipping that breathlessly reported his jet-setting ways,
making it clear that he was by then leading as glamorous a lifestyle
as his subjects.

By the time Morley Safer came calling with a 60 Minutes crew in 1977,
Karsh was the elder statesman of the celebrity-industrial complex. At
a reception on Monday evening, Safer recalled the difficulty he’d
encountered in reporting the profile, which is included in the
show. "We’d wanted to shoot him doing a portrait of somebody, and he
refused. He said it would be an imposition on the subject. He was
such an extraordinarily discreet man about his subjects; he would
not talk at all about them except in the most positive terms, even
though some of them were pretty nasty creatures."

In the early 1950s, Karsh turned his myth-making talents to corners
of his young country that were not as obviously glamorous as the
celebrities banging down his door. "He was very inspired by the attempt
of the world to rebuild after the war, and very inspired by the people
who were doing that rebuilding," says Fielder. Karsh’s photographs
of Atlas Steel factories and workers, taken for an annual report,
transformed brutal industrial elements into a balletic play of light
and shadow, and bore an inclination for heroism. Others taken on
assignment for Ford of Canada featured a balance and composition
rarely seen in his individual portraits.

(Sometimes, though, his experiments with multiple plates, which enabled
him to layer one or more images on top of each other, reflected more
of an interest in composition than content: One Ford photo features a
pair of auto workers in the foreground who seem to be sharing a soft,
homoerotic moment, of which Karsh was evidently unaware.)

In 1952, Maclean’s magazine commissioned Karsh to travel across the
country for the Canadian Cities Project. The resulting photos, which
were bound into a bestselling book that helped form Canada’s sense
of itself, included a portrait of a hushed crowd in Quebec ascending
a set of stairs; a lyrical shot of a worker at the Great Lakes Paper
Co. in Fort William, Ont., (now Thunder Bay) eating his lunch atop
a gargantuan wave of white; and a very un-Karsh-like image from the
Calgary Stampede: a tangle of cowboys and horses and ropes seeping
out from within a cloud of dust, that, as rendered in the gelatin
silver print included in the MFA show, has an almost Impressionistic

Those shots of the Canadian heartland exhibit a lightness of touch
and a willingness to react to circumstances that we don’t normally
associate with Karsh. And his early pictures, from a soft-focus 1927
landscape that won him a cash prize from the T. Eaton Co., to a handful
of modernist experiments in which he seems interested primarily in
the formal aspects of his sitters, are small revelations that make
the viewer wish he had let go and allowed his fancy to guide him
more often.

Karsh’s signature style, forged in the late 1930s and deployed until
the final sittings in the early 1990s, is resolutely classical
and frustratingly reductive. With few exceptions, we see knotted
hands and furrowed brows: signifiers of Deep Thought and complex
psychology. While his mid-century contemporaries were showing a
cross-disciplinary cosmopolitanism, Karsh remained the workmanlike,
albeit supremely gifted, technician: solid, earnest, and almost
humourless. Which is to say – despite Boston’s claim through Karsh
100 – that he was purely Canadian.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

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Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS