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Yousuf Karsh

Text from Dieter Vorsteher, introduction to "Yousuf Karsh: Heroes of Light and Shadow" (2001)

Without a doubt, the photographer Yousuf Karsh is one of the masters of portraiture in the twentieth century. Born in Armenia in 1908, he and his entire family lived through the massacres of 1915 and fled to Syria in 1922. Many months later, in January 1924, he set foot on Canadian soil and here, in North America, he found freedoms he had not known in his home country. First in Boston and then in Ottawa, he began to realize a North American dream, his rise to prominence as a photographer. He spent more than six decades of his life creating images of his contemporaries in his own, unmistakable portrait style.

Karsh was always searching for beauty, truth, and goodness, and through his own convincing world of photography, he found this conception of humanity in the faces of the beautiful, the wealthy, the influential, and those who shaped the ideas of the Western world. Among his subjects were politicians and authors, artists and actors, members of royal families, and musicians, whose portraits he wove into a dramatic panorama - the great world theater of the twentieth century. In 1987, when he was nearly eighty years old, Karsh surveyed his life's work before the National Archives of Canada acquired it and found over 370,000 negatives, including approximately 17,000 portraits, mostly of socially prominent people. In 1992 he closed his studio in Ottawa and in the same year, he moved to Boston, where he lives today.

A gigantic life's work, which had begun nearly seventy years earlier, had come to an end. Soon after his arrival in Canada in 1924, the young Yousuf Karsh started his apprenticeship in the trade of photography under his uncle George Nakash in Sherbrooke, Quebec. He stayed there until 1928, when he moved to Boston seeking to develop his skills in the atelier of the Armenian- born studio-portrait photographer John Garo. Garo, was one of the most famous practitioners of his time, an artist of light who had been part of the great artistic photography of pre-war Europe. He educated Karsh in art history and introduced him to the public figures of the city.

Karsh returned to Sherbrooke in 1930 and eventually moved to the capital city of Ottawa in 1932. This is where he first encountered the theater photography that became such a defining influence on his style. Theatrical lighting accentuated particular features of the actors and demonstrated how their characters could be visually modeled - how their theatrical types could be carved out on stage.

In 1933, Karsh opened his own atelier, and before long, he was specializing in portraits. His first clients were residents of Ottawa who enlisted his services not only for passport photos, but also to mark their marriages and other significant stages of their family lives. Soon he was taking pictures of politicians as well. His lighting magic flattered; his idealistic image of humanity was socially acceptable and appealing. This early work paved the way for Karsh to become the official portraitist for the Governor General of Canada.

He achieved worldwide recognition of his art through one single portrait, which he took in the last days of 1941. During the month of December, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, had mobilized the North American governments against Nazi Germany, and as the year drew to a close, he was in Ottawa, where he granted the young photographer a few minutes of his time. The appointment, made by the Canadian government, caught Churchill by surprise. Even more astounding for him was the insolence of the young photographer, who, without asking permission, plucked Churchill's cigar from his mouth in order to take a respectable picture. His status symbol gone, the British Prime Minister stares defiantly and ferociously at the camera, barely restraining himself. Within a few months, the image was reprinted in nearly all the significant journals and magazines of the time. It has been celebrated as the portrait of the determined Churchill and has been declared the symbol of the British Empire's resistance against Nazi Germany. This one photograph has created legends.

Even before the Churchill portrait brought him such success, Karsh had begun to "collect" outstanding contemporary people, mostly from the English-speaking world. Not only did he have a fascination with, and a passion for, the greatness and dignity of celebrities, but he also had a clear vision to gather together a gallery of portraits of the spirited and the powerful. His aim was to become famous through the portraits of the famous, a strategy facilitated by orders from magazines to shoot entire series of thematically arranged VIPs. He also persistently sought out important personalities to add to his collection, and this helped build and direct his photographic career.

After the Churchill portrait, Karsh began to gain influence. The famous figures of the day realized that they could count on him to portray the essence of their personalities. At the same time, each new photograph became an addition to Karsh's "Gallery of the Great." Initially, it had been an honor for the photographer to invite the prominent people of the world to his studio or to travel to them, but it soon became a privilege or even a duty of future portrait subjects to become accepted into Karsh's gallery of world-class figures. And it was Karsh who, in the last years before closing his studio, decided which images combined the greatest artistic merit and the most human interest.

Karsh chose the "Famous 500" from his wealth of portraits - his artistic bequest to the twentieth century. His photographic legacy is also the legacy of his image of humanity. His works have their roots in the high art of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portrait paintings - in defining and illuminating the uniqueness of the personality, in profiling the autonomy of the individual. He crystallizes his models and sets them in auras of light, their facial landscapes becoming dramatic interplays between light and shadow. Some of his subjects are portrayed as political visionaries, their faces surrounded by a light that gives them a spiritual quality. A few props define social position or creative activity: a book or reading glasses for poets, an instrument for musicians, a sample of their work for the painters and sculptors. In every case, he masterfully dominates the canon of traditional iconography. Such signifiers of role are missing for the politicians, who remain uncrowned. They carry the world in their heads and appear to follow an inner inspiration. Karsh's "Famous 500" make up a gallery of the "Saints of the Twentieth Century": the "blessed," the enlightened, the prophets and apostles, the reprieved, the kings, and the angels of our days - a modern heroic epos of five hundred verses. His oeuvre spans the entire landscape of the art of portraiture in our time, a photographic topography of the images of our memory.

In 1946, a number of Karsh's works were published in the book Faces of Destiny, and in 1959 another collection appeared - Portraits of Greatness. Three years later, in 1962, his autobiography came off the presses, under the title In Search of Greatness - "in search of size, of dignity," as Karsh called it. These are the years in which he enlarged his gallery of heroes with more and more photograph albums. In commentary accompanying the published images, Karsh describes his encounters with the models as he created their portraits. Industriousness, courage, single-mindedness, intuition, and high standards of quality sustained his work for over sixty years and helped him express his faith in humanity. His method and his style were like the keys to a never- ending story, an endless sequence of faces that could very well continue on into eternity. Not one of them resembles the others, but all are similar - distinct parts of a single extended family. They are like the tales of the One Thousand and One Nights - always new, always exciting, and woven into a great tapestry of images. They are stories of the victory of good over evil: high principles always triumph, the heroes emerge successful. Their images define the future, as if the world was full of angels. The evil vanish from our view and remain imageless.

Karsh invents the icons and devotional images of our time and makes them immortal; he is the deft magician who creates today's heroes with his camera. As St. Peter stands before the gates of Heaven holding the key, Karsh and his camera open the gates to the heaven of photographic immortality. Those who have been "karshed" are counted among the great people of the twentieth century. Is it possible to imagine Ernest Hemingway as anyone other than the man who appears to us in Karsh's portrait? The eminent photographer's portrayals of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others are symbols of distinction, of visionary power, and of humanitarianism. They are embodiments of the American dream, which is also the world's old dream of justice and of respect for the dignity of the human being. His oeuvre is the photographic background music to the ideals of the American Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of Human Rights.


 


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