Saturday, December 08, 2007

An honest portrait of Karsh

8 Dec. 2007
Montreal Gazette, Canada

Ottawa photographer focused on history-makers

Years ago, a friend gave me a second-hand copy of Portraits of Greatness, a 1959 coffee-table book by renowned Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh. The portraits featured the likes of artist Georgia O'Keeffe, composer Igor Stravinsky, writer Ernest Hemingway, physicist Niels Bohr and Queen Elizabeth II.

The accompanying anecdotes described each sitting - how, for instance, Karsh had plucked a cigar out of Winston Churchill's mouth and thus caught the defiant expression that characterized the British prime minister during the Second World War.

I found much in Karsh's black-and-white photos to be admired, including his Rembrandtesque mastery of chiaroscuro. Nonetheless, I preferred more natural environmental portraits to the formally posed images that the Ottawa-based photographer produced with a large-format camera and dramatic artificial lighting.

In the intervening years, I have seen more of Karsh's work in print and in exhibition, and I have remained ambivalent about it. Reading Portrait in Light and Shadow: The Life of Yousuf Karsh did not change my opinion, but it did deepen my understanding of the man behind the camera and the era that shaped his photography - an era in which, author Maria Tippett notes, "the public was hungry for visual images of its heroes."

When Tippett proposed a biography in 1998, Karsh was uninterested in cooperating, "convinced that he had already told his story in his many autobiographical writings." After his death in 2002, however, the cultural historian was granted full access to his archives; interviews with family members, friends, and former employees; and permission to reproduce images by and of Karsh. She spent four years researching and writing her manuscript.

Of necessity, her narrative begins slowly. Karsh was born in Turkish Armenia in 1908, and to understand him means understanding his roots and the atrocities that befell Armenians during his childhood.

Members of Karsh's extended family became part of the Armenian Diaspora, and that was how Karsh ended up at 15 in Sherbrooke under the tutelage of his uncle, George Nakash, a portrait photographer.

Karsh had originally hoped to study medicine, but once he opted for photography, he pursued it single-mindedly. At 19, he began an apprenticeship with Boston portraitist John Garo, who taught him more about the art of photography and about "the necessity of being well attired and well educated in order to win the respect and inspire the complicity of his subject." Karsh "came to share the belief that the face could express the soul (and) ... that it was the achievers in society who, more than anyone else, possessed an innate goodness, which the photographer could expose by illuminating the soul."

Karsh read voraciously, improved his spoken English, and socialized with Garo's artist friends. In 1931, he moved to Ottawa to establish his own studio; the Canadian capital, he reasoned, "would attract the most interesting people." His first choice had been Washington, but "the (American) immigration quota for Armenians was nil."

With the assistance of Solange Gauthier, his first wife and business manager, as well as the patronage of Canadian government officials, Karsh rose to international fame in a remarkably short number of years. He did so by working relentlessly (and demanding equally long hours of his staff), seeking out and fastidiously researching famous "achievers," and then using "old-world charm" and "gentle bullying" to photograph them. In time, celebrities sought him out, eager to be "Karshed."

Tippett chronicles Karsh's more than 60-year career thoroughly. She highlights the portrait commissions for media and corporate clients that took him and his cumbersome equipment around the world and made him a wealthy man. She incorporates accounts of his lesser-known journalistic work, too.

In tracing Karsh's life, Tippett has created an honest portrait. She doesn't shy away from revealing the often contradictory facets of Karsh's character: "When he spoke, he mixed courtesy and flattery with scorn and boastfulness. He exuded an air of prosperity yet also of insecurity."

She also acknowledges the art establishment's mixed reactions to Karsh's work, citing those who praised his portraiture as beautiful and compassionate, and those who dismissed it as fuddy-duddy hero worship.

Although Karsh was sometimes offended by criticism, he knew that his portraits would live on. They are, after all, a roll call of history-makers - they include every U.S. president from Herbert Hoover to Bill Clinton. "Karsh frequently compared himself to an historian," Tippett concludes, "and this, ultimately, is what he was. He recorded faces and gestures for posterity as much as for publication in the press."

Louise Abbott is a writer-photographer in the Eastern Townships. Her latest book, The Heart of the Farm, will be published by Price-Patterson in 2008.


By Maria Tippett

House of Anansi Press,

427 pages, $39.95

Note: Above are excerpts from the article. The full article appears here. Clarifications and comments by me are contained in {}. Deletions are marked by [...]. The bold emphasis is mine.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home