In art this week, portraitist of history Yousuf Karsh. He captured many of the most memorable figures of the last century, rising from humble beginnings to sitting across from heads of state and Hollywood stars, entrusted with memorializing them for the ages. More court painter than shutterbug, his genius lay in capturing more than the subject ever consciously intended to be seen.
Yousuf Karsh was born in Mardin, Armenia, on Dec. 23, 1908 (101 years ago this month). Given the atrocities the Turks were perpetrating on Armenians, his parents felt he would be better off in North America, and he thus landed in Canada in 1925. He spoke poignantly of that time in an autobiographical essay:
In 1922, our family was allowed to flee. We had to leave our doors open — with us we took no baggage, only our lives. And we had to flee on foot. During our month-long journey with a Bedouin and Kurdish caravan, which would have taken only two days by the forbidden train, my parents lost every valuable they had managed to save. My father’s last silver coin went to rescue me after I was caught foolishly making a sketch of piled-up human bones and skulls, the last bitter landmark of my country.
In the safety of Aleppo, Syria, my father painstakingly tried to rebuild our lives. Only those who have seen their savings and possessions of a lifetime destroyed can understand how great were the spiritual resources upon which my father must have drawn. Despite the continual struggle, day after day, he somehow found the means to send me to my Uncle Nakash, and to a continent then to me no more than a vague space on a schoolboy’s map.
His eccentric Uncle George Nakash, himself an established photographer, was waiting for him in Quebec. Despite aspirations to study medicine, Karsh worked in his uncle’s studio in the summer of 1926. He realized then that his soul was indeed already possessed by art, and he was helpless against it. He next went on to apprentice for a noted portrait photographer and fellow Armenian in Boston, John H. Garo. He learned the science and the craft that lay behind the art, in fact his first successful gum arabic print took him eighteen days. “But Garo taught me something more important than technique alone — Garo taught me to see, and to remember what I saw. He also prepared me to think for myself and evolve my own distinctive interpretations. “Understand clearly what you are seeking to achieve,” he would say, “and when it is there, record it. Art is never fortuitous.” When he had made six glass plates of a person, there had been much sharing of truth between the photographer and his subject”, said Karsh of his days with Garo. Five intensely influential years later he returned to Canada and opened a studio of his own in Ottowa.
One of his first portraits was of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, taken when he visited Canada in 1936. His best known portrait was shot five years later, during Winston Churchill’s pass through Ottowa on the occasion of a speech to the Canadian House of Commons in 1941. It remains one of the most reproduced photos in the world. Karsh was 27. His career took off from there, and he followed in the famous footsteps of great portrait painters of old … of the 100 most notable people of the century, named by the International Who’s Who ,2000, Karsh had photographed 51. He was also the only Canadian to make that coveted list. I don’t believe Holbein or Reynolds garnered that particular honor.
Karsh had a gift common to all good portraitists, that keen ability to see directly into his subject. To proverbially lay them bare. More than the simple capture of expression or affect, it was driven by an understanding of human nature, a recognition of the frailty of fame and ego that plagued most of his subjects. If they qualified for a Karsh, they were likely in possession of the vast array of complexities and nuances endemic to celebrity. He was said to also have an objectivity that kept him from being overawed no matter the status of the person on the other side of the lens, be it Queen Elizabeth II, JFK or Pablo Picasso. He took copious notes, some of which are present on a website dedicated to his work . I found them tremendously interesting, and excerpted some corresponding to selected portraits below. I feel that he photographed women especially brilliantly, with a conveyance of spirit and character unusual in such rather formal settings. He described it much better, himself:
The endless fascination of these people for me lies in what I call their inward power. It is part of the elusive secret that hides in everyone, and it has been my life’s work to try to capture it on film. The mask we present to others and, too often, to ourselves may lift for only a second—to reveal that power in an unconscious gesture, a raised brow, a surprised response, a moment of repose. This is the moment to record.
To my deep satisfaction, through my photographs many people have been introduced to some of the outstanding personalities of our time and, I hope, have been given a more intimate glimpse of and greater insight into them.
My own quest now has stretched for over half a lifetime. The search for greatness of spirit has compelled me to work harder — to strive for perfection, knowing it to be unattainable. My quest has brought me great joy when something close to my ideal has been attained. It has kept me young in heart, adventurous, forever seeking, and always aware that the heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.
His career was long and prolific, full of travel and tremendously interesting characters and subjects. George Perry of the British newspaper The Sunday Times, wrote that “when the famous start thinking of immortality, they call for Karsh of Ottawa.” When he passed in 2002, it was most certainly a life well and fully lived. His contribution to history will always be woven into the very fabric of our recordings of it.
Of Grace Kelly: The animated movie star welcomed me to her New York apartment in blue jeans, with her hair in curlers! Newly engaged to Rainier, the Prince of Monaco, she was in the throes of preparing for her departure for her new life far from the Hollywood sound stages. A few moments later, after running a comb through her hair and quickly changing her clothes, the beautiful woman, and future Serene Highness, emerged.
My portrait of the royal couple in cameo profile taken that same day would later be used as the official photograph and stamp of Monaco.
On Einstein: At Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, I found Einstein a simple, kindly, almost childlike man, too great for any of the postures of eminence. One did not have to understand his science to feel the power of his mind or the force of his personality. He spoke sadly, yet serenely, as one who had looked into the universe, far past mankind’s small affairs. When I asked him what the world would be like were another atomic bomb to be dropped, he replied wearily, “Alas, we will no longer be able to hear the music of Mozart.”