Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)

Sierra Club


I have found that great people do have in common an immense belief in themselves and in their mission. They also have great determination as well as an ability to work hard. At the crucial moment of decision, they draw on their accumulated wisdom. Above all, they have integrity.


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For 60 years, people world famous in politics, theology, royalty, the arts and sciences, and the military have posed for a "Karsh of Ottawa" portrait. A sitting with Karsh, in fact, has become a meeting between two world-renowed people - the subject and the photographer. Following his sitting, Field Marshall Sir Bernard Law Montogomery of El Alemain fame described the process succinctly: "I've been Karshed," he said.

In his first book, Faces of Destiny (1946), Karsh said that his purpose was to use the camera to portray the famous "both as they appeared to me and as they impressed themselves on their generation." Seeing his work as "contemporary historical documents," he cited three portraits in that acclaimed volume as meeting that objective: those of Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

It was the portrait of Winston Churchill visiting Ottawa in 1941 that catapulted Karsh into international fame as a portrait photographer. Canada's Prime Minister Mackenzie King arranged for Karsh to set up his equipment in the speaker's chamber and to photograph Churchill following Churchill's speech in the House of Commons. Not forewarned, Churchill lit up a cigar and growled, "Why was I not told of this?" but consented to a brief session. Karsh asked him to remove the cigar and, when he didn't, stepped forward and gently removed it with the comment, "Forgive me, Sir." Churchill glowered as the shot was taken, then permitted Karsh to take still another, jokingly commenting, "You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed."

When, in 1932, the now famous photographer set up his studio in Ottawa, MacKenzie King was one of Karsh's early mentors. Born of Armenian parents at Madrin, Armenia, Turkey, in 1908, he remembers scenes of brutality as the Turks uprooted Armenians in 1915. Two of his uncles died. When Yousuf was 15, his parents and two younger brothers were allowed to leave Turkey for Syria via caravan providing they took nothing with them. Once settled in Apello, they decided to send Yousuf to his uncle who had volunteered to sponsor his nephew in Canada. His uncle, George Nakash, was a successful photographer at Sherbrooke, Quebec.

In his 1962 biography, In Search of Greatness, Karsh recalls his trip through the streets of Halifax on New Year's Day, 1924. "We went up from the dock to the station in a taxi - a sleigh taxi drawn by horses with bells on their harness which never stopped tinkling. Everybody looked happy and I was intoxicated by their joy."

He attended Sherbrooke High School, intending to be a doctor, but in working around the studio found "the art of photography captivated my interest and energy." This interest was further enhanced when Nakash arranged for Karsh to be apprenticed with a friend, John H. Garo of Boston, a noted photographer who not only taught Karsh the technical processes used by photographic artists of the period but also "prepared me to think for myself and evolve my own distinctive interpretations."

The six-month apprenticeship developed into a three-year stay with Garo, whose studio became a meeting place for noted musicians and artists of the period. Karsh often served as bartender, in that prohibition period, serving people such as Arthur Fiedler, Serge Koussevitzky, and others from the world of music and theatre, an experience that led him to resolve that he would photograph "those men and women who leave their mark on the world."

In 1934 Karsh chose Ottawa as the place in which to open a modest studio partly because of his early experiences in Canada, but primarily because the capital was the crossroads for many important visitors. Shortly afterwards he was invited to join a local drama group where he not only learned new skills in lighting but also befriended the son of Canada's then Governor General, who prevailed on his parents, Lord and Lady Bessborough, to sit for Karsh. The subsequent photograph was used by several British publications and newspapers in Canada.

One of the first in Canada to commission Karsh was B.K. Sandwell of Saturday Night magazine. It was, in fact, Sandwell whom Karsh contacted about the Churchill portrait, asking his advice how best to offer the negative to other sources for future publication. Sandwell suggested that he get an agent. Some time later Life magazine "offered $100 which I accepted, being then very naive about the value of anything - all I wanted was for the photograph to be published."

Life first printed the photograph on an inside page but later used the same print on its cover. It was then published in England and throughout the Commonwealth to become, Karsh happily admits, "one of the most frequently published photographic portraits of any person in history."

This also led the Canadian government to arrange for Karsh to sail overseas early in 1943 to photograph wartime leaders and others in England. In 60 days he took 43 portraits which became the basis for his first book in 1946. These included sittings with King George VI, King Hakkon of Norway, numerous military leaders as well as George Bernard Shaw, Noel Coward, and H.G. Wells. Soon after, Life magazine commissioned him to do a smaller series of portraits in Washington. Other assignments were quick to follow.

Ever since, Karsh has roamed the world photographing primarily the famous. While he has made "countless photographs of people of all kinds" and "my personal interest in ordinary people is unlimited," he confesses that he continues to feel more challenged when "portraying true greatness adequately with my camera." In preparation, he reads as much as he can about the person before the sitting, but avoids having a "preconceived idea of how I will photograph any subject." Rather he seeks, as he wrote in his 1967 volume, Karsh Portfolio, to capture the "essential element which has made them great," explaining, "All I know is that within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can."

He admits he does not really know what enables him to capture the secret so often and, in a 1992 interview, said, "and I am not going to make inquiries. The magic and the mystery are very comforting to me. The unknown is very welcome." The year 1992 was a momentous one for Karsh: he not only published American Legends which features 73 portraits taken between 1989 and 1991 but also closed his Ottawa studio after its 60 years of existence. He maintained an apartment in Ottawa and an apartment/studio in New York until his death in 2002. Karsh has had exhibitions of his work in Canada, Great Britain, Australia, China, and, in 1994, the United States. A number of portraits are also on display at numerous museums throughout the world. The bulk of his work, however, amounting to some 250,000 negatives, 12,000 colour transparencies, and 50,000 original prints was sold in 1987 to the National Archives of Canada at Ottawa. [Adapted from Greatness Exposed - Canadian Government Web Site]

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