New Book Explores Karsh’s Relationships with His Subjects


By Daphne Abeel

Special to Mirror-Spectator

Last year, photographer Yousuf Karsh’s repu- tation in the Boston area received a special boost when his widow, Estrelita, made a gift of 27 of his best-known images to the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) in Watertown. The images, which are now part of ALMA’s permanent collection, ensure that Karsh will have a lasting presence in one of the Armenian community’s more important institu- tions.

Now, David R. Godine Publishers, known for its high production values, has, again with the support and encouragement of Estrelita Karsh, assembled a collection of nearly 70 images, accompanied with a dual text: commentary by Karsh himself on his subjects, and additional interpretation and commentary by David Travis, the founder of the Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The comments by Karsh have been extracted from a series of interviews, which were conducted in 1988 by Jerry Fiedler, Karsh’s long time studio assistant, who sat down with the master and taped many hours of reminiscences and recollections regarding his subjects and the conditions in which he made his pictures.

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An introduction reviews the essentials of Karsh’s biography, his escape from the Genocide to Aleppo as a young boy, from whence he was sent as a teenager to live with his uncle, George Nakash, a photographer who had a successful studio in Sherbrooke, in the province of Quebec, Canada. Karsh attended school there, but he also swiftly picked up the tools of the photographer’s trade by working as his uncle’s assistant.

Nakash soon recognized his nephew’s abili- ties and arranged for him to travel to Boston to apprentice with yet another Armenian photog- rapher, Joseph H. Garo. In 1930, he returned to

Canada and set up his own studio. A significant aspect of his training and an experience, which led to the distinctive Karsh “look” was his work at the Ottawa Drama League. It was there that he learned about stage lighting and the use of tungsten lamps, which he would use later to great effect in developing the deep blacks and dramatic high- lights that would become the signature of his photographic work.

It should be added that in addition to pursuing what would become a highly-successful career, Karsh did not forget his family back in Syria and eventually succeeded in bringing them all to Canada, where they thrived, one of his brothers becoming a medical doctor.

Karsh, early on, encouraged by his uncle, also learned to make use of his personal connec- tions, and it was his acquaintance with the Canadian Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, that led to the capturing of the iconic portrait of Winston Churchill, widely accepted as the most famous portrait ever taken. According to legend, Karsh, who had only a few minutes with the great man, removed the cigar from Churchill’s fingers, thereby arousing the faintly belligerent and piercing look he managed to capture so memorably on camera.

The collection of images in the book presents much of Karsh’s best-known work, including the Churchill portrait, which graces the cover. We once again gaze at his portrayals of Ernest Hemingway, Albert Schweitzer, Edward Steichen, Audrey Hepburn, Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Queen Elizabeth, Grace Kelly, Aaron Copland. And many of these are familiar, but there are also portraits of some who are less known, such as the physician, Thomas Cullen, and a charming shot of a young Armenian boy, Stephen Moomian, taken in 1979, which may have reminded Karsh of him- self when he was that age.

The commentaries, while interesting, are not always especially revealing, although they con- tain some surprises. The playwright George Bernard Shaw, known for his astringent wit and observations, had the temerity to say to Karsh, when he learned that he was Armenian, “Oh, wonderful. I have many friends among the

Armenians. But you know, the only way to keep them healthy and strong is to exterminate them once in a while.” Karsh, ever the diplomat even in the face of this shocking comment, conclud- ed that he did not take offence. “There was no menace in it,” he is recorded as saying.

Karsh, who had considerable skills for putting his subjects at ease, never commented negatively about them, and clearly went to con- siderable lengths to put them at ease and to photograph them in settings that enhanced their stature and persona.

One exception was the novelist, Vladimir Nabokov. Karsh’s portrait of him, reveals the writer, not quite in full face, staring quizzically at the camera and holding up a small drawing of a butterfly. (Nabokov was a famously enthu- siastic lepidopterist.) About him, Karsh says, “Nabokov is a brilliant writer and prolific writ- er. As a human being, he left much to be desired. He is among the least attractive men I have ever photographed. His manners, his thinking, his arrogance, his false behavior [were objectionable to me].” One has to wonder what

the dazzling, Russian satirist might have said to Karsh to arouse such an unusual and critical reaction.

Some of Karsh’s most notable portraits were taken in profile and a number of them appear here, including the images of Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Georgia O’Keefe and Francois Mauriac. He also photographed some very famous couples, including John and Jacqueline Kennedy, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Queen Elizabeth and her consort, Prince Philip. He was capable of taking some great risks with his composition, his photograph of the cellist Pablo Casals being one of them. He pho- tographs Casals from the back, dramatically lit, sitting alone on a stage, playing his cello.

While the Travis commentaries are always admiring, they do not, in every case, necessari- ly add to the appreciation of a particular photo, but in some instances, he does add information that causes the viewer to absorb the image in a new way. The portrait of Ernest Hemingway, which was taken at the writer’s retreat in Cuba, shows Hemingway, dressed peculiarly, for the climate, in a heavy, wool turtle necked sweater. Travis provides the information that Hemingway was, at the time, in great pain, from some back injury. Perhaps, the heavy sweater provided him with a sense of protection.

Only a very few of Karsh’s subjects are still alive. The last portrait in the book is of the great South African leader Nelson Mandela and was taken in 1990. Karsh died in Boston in 2002.

Godine has gone to considerable lengths to honor Karsh’s concern for printing and repro- duction. The book has been printed in Switzerland at Jean Genoud SA, Karsh’s favorite printer. The paper, tatami natural paper on an acid free sheet, supports the lush black and white tones that characterize the photog- rapher’s work. There are critics who can, perhaps, dismiss aspects of Karsh’s work as for- mulaic, and it is true that he found an aesthet- ic and technical strategy that worked for him over and over again. But when a viewer comes across an image and identifies it immediately as Karsh, we know that he has made his mark as an artist and a photographer. This volume attests to his lasting influence.

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