Armenian who became portraitist of the famous
WhenYousuf Karsh - Karsh of Ottawa - who died on July 14th aged 93, was asked about his phenomenally successful photographic …
WhenYousuf Karsh - Karsh of Ottawa - who died on July 14th aged 93, was asked about his phenomenally successful photographic portraits of the famous, he insisted that "there's no secret". To which the subtext could have been "just the single-minded pursuit of greatness".
He was born on December 23rd, 1908, in Mardin, in Turkish Armenia, at a time when tensions between the communities were at their tragic height. It made for an unhappy childhood. His family sent him to Nova Scotia at 16, a poor child of the Christian Armenian diaspora, under the care of his Canadian uncle; he decided that what he wanted from life was not fortune but fame. And what better way of acquiring both, if only incidentally, than by documenting the famous?
Yousuf Karsh learned the necessary photographic skills from his uncle who, unable to afford the fees to put his nephew through medical school, gave him his first Kodak, then apprenticed him to the Boston studio portraitist, John H. Garo, another Armenian.
There he learned how to prepare and process images, how to both relax and control his subjects, plus the secrets of staging and lighting; as a member of the Ottawa Little Theatre, he had studied the use of lighting there.
He also came to know society clients through afternoon sessions when, having closed up shop early, Garo invited the literati and glitterati of the city for cocktails. What Yousuf Karsh lacked in thirst for drink he compensated for in his avidity of observation, even visiting public libraries on his days off to "silently observe the different readers I was interested in photographing. Then I would introduce myself: 'I'm a student of photography - would you give me the pleasure of modelling for me?' I would experiment for an hour, two hours, taking pictures".
He opened his own studio in Ottawa in 1932, when he was 24. Those extended sittings had helped him perfect his technique and develop a certain panache, and by the end of the decade he was established as a photographer of Canadian political personalities.
In pursuit of statesmen, Yousuf Karsh determined to capture a picture of Winston Churchill, who was visiting Ottawa in 1941. Through Canada's governor general, Lord Tweedsmuir (John Buchan), Yousuf Karsh met prime minister Mackenzie King, and through King, Churchill. Yousuf Karsh finally hustled his way to the front of a crowd to get a reluctant, growled acquiescence from Churchill to "just one, mind you". During the sitting Yousuf Karsh barely paused to utter "Sir, forgive me" before snatching away the cigar that Churchill always bore between his lips.
The resulting priceless propaganda coup made the cover of Life magazine in the United States, which had not yet joined the war, and it "appealed to the whole world" as Yousuf Karsh observed 40 years later. It shows the British PM in pugnacious pose, ready for battle (although perhaps Churchill was merely in irritation at having his prop removed).
By the war's end Yousuf Karsh's name was on portraits of - this is his own list - "scientists, labour leaders, captains of industry, physicians, film stars, directors, composers, statesmen, clergymen, military leaders, princes and presidents" - all of them what he called "people of consequence". His Faces Of Destiny (1946) collected the resulting work.
Yousuf Karsh was not contemptuous of the common man, but insisted: "I am working with the world's most remarkable cross-section of people. I do believe it's the minority who make the world go around, not the majority." Within that minority there were Audrey Hepburn and Albert Einstein, Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Nikita Khrushchev.
Two of his black-and-white portraits of artists have a timeless impact that would guarantee entry into any annal of great 20th century photography. That taken of Georgia O'Keeffe in 1956 shows the elegant elderly artist caught between two outsized objet trouves that compose her living room. Dwarfed between them, buttoned into stiff and severe black, O'Keeffe looks away, her eyes down, her pose turned towards a doorway, through which appears a shaft of brilliant sunlight. That of Pablo Casals shows the master cellist even more obscured by his instrument, wholly absorbed, with his back to the viewer.
He held his first one-man show at the National Gallery of Canada in 1959, and others followed in Montreal (1967), New York (1983), and toured elsewhere. His collection, Men Who Make Our World (1967), toured in North America, Europe and Australia.
In 1983 came Karsh: A 50-year Retrospective And Autobiography. He received many honours, including membership of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and honorary fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society; he was a visiting professor at several universities, and also lectured on television.
Yousuf Karsh was not only technically a master but also a smart self-promoter, clever at getting attention and impressing distinguished sitters. He filled the modern equivalent of the position of court portrait painters in the 19th century; and he was just as brilliant at supplying his clients with the romantic image they wanted.
His 1957 portrait of Hemingway made the American writer look like the hero of his novel The Old Man And The Sea. It was the literary equivalent of the Churchill portrait. But for those who considered photography a poor relation to painting, except in realistic reportage, Yousuf Karsh was felt to be an over-rated and disappointing artist.
Not for him the private and revealing glimpse of the famous as seen by their valets; he was a recorder of public performances, roles and images, and he spoke of his portrait sessions as a "collaboration" as if he were a director, and the sitter an actor performing onstage. It was flattering and it was entertaining, but often far from the truth.
Yousuf Karsh's first wife Solange Gathier died in 1961. He is survived by his second wife, Estrellita Maria Nachbar.
Yousuf Karsh: born 1908; died, July 2002