Karsh Exhibit Captures Spark: ALMA Unveils Gallery

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By Daphne Abeel
Special to the Mirror-Spectator

WATERTOWN, Mass. — Anyone with a passing knowledge of 20th century photography has seen an image shot by Yousuf Karsh. His photograph ofWinston Churchill is possibly the most frequently reproduced photo portrait in the world.

Thus, it is no wonder that the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) has celebrated, with two events, its acquisition from Karsh’s widow, Estrellita, of a group of images that will become part of the museum’s permanent collection. It was Bob Khederian, a board member of ALMA, who first made the suggestion that she donate prints to ALMA.

A gala benefit took place on Friday night at the Copley Plaza Hotel and the exhibit, titled “Karsh: Celebrating Humanity,” opened to ALMA members and supporters on Saturday. Certainly, Karsh’s images have drawn attention because he gained access to some of the world’s most famous people. But he would not have achieved international renown without a superb technical mastery of his craft and a deeply-thought-out vision of how he wished to present his subjects. He wrote extensively about his approach to the making of photographic portraits — for example, in his book, Karsh Portfolio, 1967, he stated, “Within every man and woman, a secret is hidden, and as a photographer, it is my task to reveal it.”

What may be less familiar to viewers than the iconic portraits themselves are some of the particulars of Karsh’s photographic and printing techniques. For Karsh, taking a portrait was not a matter of sitting someone down in front of a camera and simply clicking the shutter. Extensive preparation and meticulous attention to every detail were key to producing the final product.

Karsh began his study of photography at an early age. Born in Mardin, Turkey in 1908, he was sent by his family, at the age of 16, to Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada where he apprenticed with his photographer uncle, George Nakash. Nakash felt his nephew had great potential as a photographer and arranged for him to study in Boston with a fellow Armenian portrait photographer, Joseph Garo. When he returned to Canada, he set up his own studio in Ottawa in 1932, not far from the seat of Canada’s government and through a connection with the prime minister, he began to take portraits of prominent figures.

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Karsh had a keen apprehension of the function of light in the context of black and white photography and went to great lengths to achieve the prints that express his signature look. His work at a local theater in Ottawa introduced him to the use of incandescent — as opposed to natural — light and he was to use this medium to dramatic effect in his work. For some of his assignments, he and his assistants would transport as much as 200-300 pounds of lighting equipment to a shoot. He also developed a strategy of lighting his subjects’ hands separately from their faces, a technique that deepened the interest of the shot. Karsh made use of a number of large-format cameras, but his favorite instrument was the Calumet 8” x 10”, whose large negative made possible a finer image quality in the printing process. In many instances, he would spend considerable time with his subjects before actually taking any photographs, talking to them, and persuading them to relax. However, in the case of the famous Churchill photo, taken in 1941 after Churchill’s speech at the Canadian parliament, he recounts that he had only a few minutes to catch the essence of the great man.

The darkroom processing of the image was as important to Karsh as the composition and actual taking of the shot. He developed his own negatives and the prints were made through a photogravure process on especially manufactured heavy paper to produce silver gelatin prints. This process made possible a great range in tonality of the final prints, from the deepest blacks to the most brilliant whites and everything in between. He also made extensive use of retouching to heighten or diminish the density of an image. When he signed the original prints, he used a special heavy, soft, black ink.

In all aspects of his work, Karsh must be admired and respected as the consummate professional who mastered both his art and his craft. There is virtually no photographer today working as Karsh did, and with the advent of digital photography, it is highly unlikely that his darkroom skills will ever be replicated.

The show at ALMA, consists of 23 of the 25 images that Estrellita Karsh has given to the museum (two not hung because of lack of space are of Marian Anderson and Jim Hansen, but they will be hung elsewhere in the building). Amongst them are the Churchill photo, portraits of Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost, Pablo Casals and others. The exhibit includes several portraits of Armenian subjects including Aram Khachaturian, Vartan Gregorian and Stephen Mugar, Gregorian being the only subject in the show who is still living.

Jerry Fielder, curator and director of the Estate of Yousuf Karsh, who once was Karsh’s assistant, said “These prints were all made from Karsh’s original negatives, which are housed in the archives in Canada. No one can reproduce a Karsh print without permission.”

The opening, which drew a crowd of about 200 people, coincides with the renovation of ALMA’s Bedoukian Gallery by Keith Crippen, head designer of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), who also designed the MFA’s new Art of the Americas Wing. The first floor space has been brightened with new lighting and fresh paint and the gallery is set off from additional space devoted to the display of ALMA’s collection of manuscripts and other historical artifacts. Said Michele Kolligian, ALMA trustee and gala chairperson, “The renovation of the gallery and the Karsh gift will put ALMA in a position to attract more visitors and supporters, non- Armenian as well as Armenian. We are so fortunate to have had a wonderful team of professionals work on this renovation, which includes a new media room, climate controlled display cases and new bookstore space.”

ALMA curator Gary Lind-Sinanian, who worked with Crippen, MFA graphic designer Jennifer Munson and others virtually up to the moment of the gallery opening, said, “This is great, but most people have no idea of the hundreds to details that go into making a show like this happen.”
Prior to the ribbon-cutting which allowed guests into the gallery, Estrellita Karsh spoke briefly, and said, “This is a real museum now, using the past of the Armenians to bring forth the present and the future, which my husband, Yousuf, represented. This is a gathering of the old, the new, the contemporary and shows that the Armenian culture is moving out into the community.”

The exhibit is permanent, and open to the public starting Thursday, September 22.

ALMA’s hours are Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 12-6 p.m., and Friday and Saturday, 12- 8 p.m.

The renovation for the “Karsh: Celebrating Humanity” exhibition was made possible by a gift from the Dadourian Foundation.

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