(Dec. 23, 1908 - July 13, 2002)
The story of Yousuf Karsh's life might unexpectedly begin with a correction. From his youth in Mardin, Turkey, by way of his Armenian family's emigration from persecution and new life in Syria, he finally landed in Canada as a 15-year-old Arabic-speaking boy sponsored by his new world uncle, on New Year's day, January 1, 1924 (1). This is a full year earlier than his recollection in his autobiography. But it is an essential year, allowing time for his crowded youth, wherein he learned two new languages - English and the probing, eliciting repartee of the portrait studio - as well as the dual craft and art of photography. As importantly, he also observed the subtle nuances of power in his new culture - where it resided, what values it applauded, how it could be expressed and when it needed to be cloaked. The immaculate manners which had offered him dignity in the harsh circumstances of his family's losses during the Turkish oppression would also disarm his new acquaintances, and later offer him unparalleled access to the personalities he sought out, while veiling his own steely will.
The Sherbrooke, Quebec, to which his uncle Aziz Georges Nakash (originally Nakashian) took Karsh to begin his new life was a town which would count about 29.000 inhabitants in 1930, very similar in size to Mardin. Although three-quarters were French-speaking, the local economy and its select social life were overwhelmingly controlled by the English-speaking minority. Karsh's formal schooling was limited to some six months after which he began his photographic apprenticeship in his uncle's studio. However learning to understand that the local elite, becoming welcomed among them, would be his critical training. Through newspapers and magazines, like Saturday Night, he learned the language and the values of his new home – the nationalism linked to Britishness and the virtue of a northern climate (his own visibly middle-eastern origins would later pose an obstacle when he proposed to marry Solange Gauthier). He heard the stories of Horatio Alger success, and saw the focus on financial return for effort, even in art, which nevertheless was positioned as above considerations of money. Through photographic trade publications, like Kodak's Studio Light, he was exhorted to learn techniques of marketing and persuasion, and he discerned the repeating biographical template of the most applauded photographic artists. Richard N. Speaight of England, for example, was presented as admirable role model for photographers because he was a favorite among royalty, and sponsored by Kodak, he assembled an exhibition of his work together with that of other European portrait photographers which were widely circulated in the United States in 1929. In these ways, the indissoluble link was made for Karsh between merit and fame.
The formative impact of Karsh's two periods working with his uncle has been underrated (2) (Illustration 1). It was in his uncle's studio for example, and not, as so often stated, at Ottawa s Little Theatre, that he first encountered artificial lighting; there that he learned the techniques of the itinerant photographer who goes to where his client is; there that his willingness to perform any photography, from news journalism to advertising was first instilled. His uncle’s involvement with a published newspaper series of «Well Known Men of the Eastern Townships» from October 5, 1929 to January 25, 1930 would have demonstrated the value of serial or collected celebrity portraiture in a public forum. Karsh's intervening three-year apprenticeship (between about the second half of 1927 and the first half of 1930 (3)) in the studio of John H. Garo in Boston has been recognized as critical to confirming for him the concept and modal practice of portrait photography as art. The aging Garo's reputation was long established, based on his mastery of the Pictorial style. Pictorialism was an international movement around the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries which proposed that the ideals, styles, and standards of other art media applied equally to photography; hence, that photography was necessarily also art. Its products often recalled engravings or drawings with soft focus and matte surfaces. Garo's personal relationships with his prominent sitters, expressed in the character of his studio as a salon with gatherings, conversation and conviviality, further ensconced the idea of an empathy between photographer and sitter, and the co-equality of the musicians, singers, and writers with the photographer. Karsh learned there the demanding meticulousness of older technologies, allied with the already familiar credo, ascending to myth, of the uniquely perceptive portrait photographer; this was one who evoked and captured a moment of insight into the core of a sitter's existence, «the mind and the soul behind the human face». (4) This last had been the admitted ambition of portrait photographers since the invention of the medium – indeed it was the ambition of portraitists in any medium. How Karsh ultimately addressed himself to that problem by allowing a 19 th century precision with a 20th-century collaboration with his audience, even more than his sitter, defines him concurrently as the last of the great Victorian photographers and among the first of Canada's modernists. He is still the only Canadian artist to have achieved enduring worldwide renown among both an elite a populist audience for his personal resolution of this ancient ambition.
When Karsh first moved to Ottawa in the late spring or early summer of 1932, it was not in order to begin his own studio. Rather, he came to join the studio of John Powis who was, like Garo a widely recognized photographer with a prestigious clientele. Indeed he was the closest Canada came to an appointed court photographer; his photographic folders sported the coats of arms of no fewer than three Governors-General including the incumbent Earl of Bessborough. He also photographed many of the debutantes who were «presented» each year at the Governor General's «drawing room» and saw his photographs reproduced in the society pages of magazines such as the National Saturday Night where Karsh, an avid Saturday Night reader, would have seen them.
Karsh often said that he settled on Ottawa for his future because he believed that, as a capital, it would be a crossroads of the world, positioned between Washington and London, England. It is worth noting that in 1931, the Statute of Westminster had finally conferred on Ottawa responsibility for Canada 's own foreign affairs, which had previously been conducted through London. As a result, the United States built the first foreign embassy in Ottawa, opposite Parliament Hill, and, indeed, prestigious visitors did come to the city, among them the attendees of the Imperial Economic Conference of July 21 - August 20, 1932 . Karsh convinced his new employer to invite members of the Conference for sittings, but the portraits made a little public impact. It was quick enough clear that Karsh's ambitions exceeded those of Powis, though he may have been with Powis until December, or even until spring of 1933 when he opened his own studio at the address Powis vacated. From that moment on, Karsh made an immediate impact on Ottawa 's photographic scene – among the sixteen or so other professional photographic studios in the national capital area, his most decisively broke with soft focus to stake out a high realist precision within an Art Deco studio décor (Illustration 2).
Karsh's sensitivity to high fashion meant that, among the weddings and passport photographs which he took were also the glamorous debutantes and even advertising work for furs and clothes.(5) When the enthusiasm for amateur theatricals peaked in the city due to the strong personal interest that the Governor General, the Earl of Bessborough and his family took in it, Karsh, like others volunteered at the Ottawa Little Theatre. He did the group's photography, and it is often noted how this introduction to stage lighting triggered karsh's recognition of the dramatic potential of artificial light for studio portraiture. It may also have revealed how to use light and other theatrical elements to communicate a greater immaterial idea with the lesser imperfect resources of actuality. But the theatre enriched him in at least two other ways. After seeing his first play, he met his future wife backstage, Solange Gauthier, who was an actor and director and well connected within Ottawa society.(6) Further, he soon became the photographer for the Dominion Drama Festival, a national competition created at the instigation of the Governor General, resulting in his first photograph published in Saturday Night.(7) Karsh was also able to approach Viscount Duncannon, son of the Governor General and a leading man, to request a sitting with the Governor General and his wife. It actually took two sittings to obtain the portraits that Karsh then submitted for wide reproduction in The Illustrated London News, The Tatler, and The Sketch as well as many Canadian publications. This deliberate search for publication coincided entirely with the context in which Karsh had been trained – with his uncle, with Garo, with powis, all of whom saw their work published aiding the recognition that spelled both past and future success. Revealingly, Karsh said of these published portraits «My career had now at last begun…».(8)
This involvement with the publication is important for another reason; it dovetailed with Karsh's engagement with a precisionist and more dramatized style that had developed among professional photographers late in the 19th century. This style had been their response to the tired Victorian formulae to which Pictorialists had also objected. But while Pictorialists, who were largely amateurs, had moved toward a radically subjective, moody and soft-focus expression in the search for a spiritually moving and artistic form, these professionals had stripped away accoutrement, moved closer up, and used the revived techniques of carbon and platinum printing to create a realism marked by restrained yet superbly finished and brilliantly high definition (Illustration 3). Such realism was praised in the literature like Kodak's Studio Light and it could respond to newspaper and magazine criteria for photographs “that make good half-tones and reproduce snappy results, perhaps on cheap paper. This means sharp focus, ferrotyped (glossy), black-and-white prints”. «As importantly, an eye-catching photographic realism within a dramatic layout was becoming ever more widely used in such publications in contexts where persuasion was as important as a document – in advertising and socially engaged photojournalism. In 1923, the renowned Edward Steichen began to work for Condé Nast producing both celebrity portraits and advertising through the 1930s. He aligned even art photography's own return to high definition realism, now seen as the necessary condition of «pure» photography, with the popular scope of national publications such as Vogue and Vanity Fair.
That an exquisite realism, based in its own tradition, was associated with the highest quality professional photography, that a new version of realism was validated as a purity of medium, and that such photography could be used to fuse a persuasive message with the vehicles for a mass audience, found a resonance in Yousuf Karsh. Karsh's realism though, like that of his predecessors, by no means meant a reduction of personal control over any feature of his images. His competence in all technical matters was broad: from the set up of a sitting to the development of negatives and prints, from density control by intensification and sandwiching through cropping and invisible retouching. Within three years of opening his studio, by 1936, Karsh had defined his hallmark style, as in the portraits of Ruth Draper or Grey Owl (Illustration 4). Its visual cues are easy to perceive - the powerful interplay of dramatic lighting with simple broad massing of forms, the flawless technical control, the prodigally rich tones, the apparently effortless transformation of what might have been a conventional pose into one that seems a sudden revelation of character. Time now to consider the mechanism at play beyond style which allowed Karsh convincingly to propose that the world is populated by heroes and heroines.
Although by 1941, Yousuf Karsh had developed a North American reputation, had experimented privately with nude photography, had exhibited at the annual international photographic salons sponsored by the National Gallery of Canada from 1934 to 1939, had been published in photographic art magazines in addition to popular outlets, had become an Associate of the Royal Photographic Society in 1937, and had had his first solo exhibition at Toronto in 1938 (11), nothing was to give him the instant fame as a creative artist which came with the publication of his portrait of Winston Churchill. Although Karsh had only a few minutes on December 30, 1941, to make his exposure of Churchill, who had just delivered his rousing «some chicken, some neck» speech to the joint Houses of Parliament in Ottawa, he had rehearsed the whole event extensively the previous day. He had set up the scenario in the Parliament Buildings and corrected the lights and props with a stand-in. Like the director of a play, he was rehearsing a final result which was to be stamped with his own attitude toward the appropriate in the moment he was anticipating. When Churchill arrived smoking, Karsh felt the occasion was simply too «historic» for the nonchalance or informality that smoking in a portrait commonly denoted at the time. «I removed Churchill's cigar (ever so respectfully’) because I left that it did not belong on that occasion. Not at that high moment of history»(12) A more revealing exposure of Karsh's poeticization of history, to which he intended his sitters to confirm, could hardly be found. The photographer's control of the image, and hence of so much of the message, was further assured in the printing by, for instance, the preparation and use of a second «shadow» negative of the Churchill, sandwiched with the original negative, to hold back the light in targeted areas during printing , allowing greater contrast.
While the parallels with theatre in the taking of such formal portrait photographs are easily acknowledged – the photographer as director, the sitter as actor, the setting as stage, the controlled lighting and costumes, the scripted poses and actions – there is an almost visceral refusal to pursue the theatrical parallel when examining the final product or when considering the reception of the work by the audience. Instead, the final product is judged by how «real» it seems, by how exactly the «truth» of a sitter's character has been captured. To call the Churchill portrait «theatrical» would be to denigrate it. And the viewers are presumed to be like passive empty vessels, into which this essential truth is presumed to be like passive empty vessels, into which this essential truth is poured. Hence the Churchill is said to capture the true bulldog quintessence of the man, and by extension, of the British people during the Second World War, for all the world to see.
But what can be learned from pursuing the theatrical parallel after all? What if the effectiveness of Karsh's work is as dependent on the viewer's active response as on the sitter's persona or the photographer's talent, and what if that response conforms to and extends the theatrical construction of the portrait-marking event itself? The continuing popularity of Karsh's imagery reveals the unique and unspoken relationship with his audience which he unsurprisingly developed even as he insisted on the primacy of the image. It is a relationship which may owe its endurance, appropriately, to an enduring theatrical response – that of cathartic release.
Catharsis, a concept associated originally with tragedy, represents the arousal, at a safe distance, of fear and anxiety and the resolution or purgation of these emotions through dramatic storytelling with which an audience can identify. In portraiture of the great and famous, the audience comes with a fear of disappointment, that their heroes may, in fact, be far lesser beings. This was the fear that Karsh recognized and resolved. From his initial years as a portraitist, he pursued an intention perfectly definable in terms of cathartic purgation or emotional release. He steered each sitter through the fear of unhappy exposure, himself through the fear of failure (13) and the viewer through the fear of disappointment or identification with less than an icon. He said his «quest» was for the «inward power» of the real self; this in his famous works, coincided the heroic self. By signaling this inward power or heroism through a photography of incontestable realism and persuasive visual rhetoric which proposed to reveal the unmediated psychological depth of the sitter, he relieved the viewer's and the sitter's anxiety about the self and the world's admired achievers and leaders. The nation builders had existed, had been heroes. Hence the extraordinary relief and welcome afforded to the Churchill image – in a time of severe anxiety, it did not claim to make Churchill into a hero; it said that the mask was lifted on the man and underneath, the hero was there.
By the mid-1950s, Karsh was the acknowledged world master of this vision which combined flawless technical precision with a designated setting, an empathetic relationship with a sitter and special manipulation of the negative, development and printing. While he described a pursuit of distilled essences in a crystallizing moment, in practice the many large format negatives he exposed at sittings provided a rich field of options among which he carefully selected, often revisiting series and creating new definitive statements, sometimes years after the original settings (Illustration 5). Several fecund trips to Europe and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s produced some of the classic imagery which is never unrepresented in his books and exhibitions. Popular photography's 1958 recognition of Karsh as the only «portraitist» among the «10 Greatest Photographers in the World», (14) the publication of his Portraits of Greatness in London, Toronto and new York in 2 of his memoirs in 1962, all indicated his achievement of a broad and esteemed recognition by his peers, clients and admirers. His name became an adjective (Karshian) and a verb (to be Karshed).
In 1962, about a year after his wife's death, Karsh married the striking Estrellita Maria Nachbar, and launched another phase of his jet-setting life. Until he closed his Ottawa studio in 1992, his most successful photographs, which he inaccurately termed the «famous 500» (15), communicated his message not only through the satisfying «instantaneousness» which seemed to guarantee authenticity but also through the perfected hyperrealism of his printing style, and the self-sufficiency of each image presented inside a «frame». The «frame» included not only the props and setting of the photographic moment but also the Karshian anecdote and the serial presentation as part of his «collection», hence the central importance of his many books of collected portraits. Contained within this envelope, no further external context to understand the sitter seemed required. The circle of the pantheon had an inherent integrity of its own, a unity to which even the most unique individual personalities bowed.
The young immigrant boy with virtually no English had opened a studio by 1933 in the worst economic depression North America had ever experienced. The Great Depression may itself have reinforced the need for social reassurance which Karsh's address to the public furnished, thus paradoxically setting a framework which might have aided, as much as endangered, his fledgling enterprise. He resolved the apparently contradictory ambition to be an exclusive photographer while approved by everyone. He achieved this exceptional status through an insight which may also have been due to another disadvantage: his immigrant status. He did not deny the tenets of the group but ratified one of the most compelling urges of humanity – that to assimilation and integration within the legitimating group. Six years later he could be called the best-known photographer on the continent and was poised to take on the world. This was more than artistic talent, more even than brilliant marketing and the casting of his own personal image into a consecrated «artistic» rhetoric although it was that too. It was an ability to reach and placate the scarcely formulated, indeed disguised and denied cravings of a mass audience for solace, for clarification and balance, and in effect for the purification, even the ennobling of feeling and the resolution of catharsis, on a scale never before achieved by a still photographer.
It is said there is proof, evidence, and truth, and then there is what grounds proof, evidence and truth – that foundation which is self-evidently accepted and needs no proof. For Descartes, it was «cogito, ergo, sum» for Karsh, to find a way, each time, each place, to declare an incontrovertible «I am » was the quintessential, consoling goal.