Photographs by Karsh: Learning from Exhibitions

Article excerpt

On the centenary of his birth, museums around the world are celebrating the exceptional accomplishments of one of history's great photographers, Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002). This year, museums from London to Ottawa, Boston to Los Angeles, Chicago to Montgomery, Ala., and beyond, will present a series of unique exhibitions and publications on the man universally regarded as one of the finest portrait photographers of all time.

In a prolific career that spanned three-quarters of a century, Yousuf Karsh endeavored to document through photography not only the likenesses, but also the personalities of many great and important people of the 20th century. His unique presentation of these individuals allows greater insight into what Karsh called their "inward power." This knowledge and sensitivity toward the subjects, combined with the artist's consummate technical skills, produced images that permit the viewer a more intimate glimpse of these outstanding personalities of the modern age.

From early in his career, Karsh sought to record through photography and to preserve for posterity people of consequence in every field of endeavor. Karsh once stated, "It has been my good fortune to meet many of the world's great men and women, people who have left their mark on our era. I have used my camera to portray them as they appeared to me and as I felt they have impressed themselves on their generation."

Karsh was born in 1908 in Mardin, Armenia, the son of an import/export entrepreneur and the grandson of an engraver. As a boy, he witnessed the horrors of the Turkish atrocities against the Armenians and, in 1924, he was forced to flee his native land with his family to Syria. Two years later, his parents sent him to live with his uncle, George Nakash, a studio portrait photographer in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada.

Under the influence of his uncle, the young Karsh soon developed an interest in the art of photography. His first photographic success was that of a landscape with playing children, which he gave to a classmate as a gift. His friend secretly entered the picture in a contest where it won first prize.

"While at first I did not realize it, everything connected with the art of photography captivated my interest and energy," recalled Karsh. "It was to be not only my livelihood, but my continuing passion." Karsh then served a three-year apprenticeship with the well-known Boston portrait photographer John H. Garo. Under Garo's tutelage, Karsh learned technical processes, which required great skill and prepared him to develop his own unique interpretations and style. While in Boston, Karsh was encouraged to attend art classes and to study the works of great masters such as Rembrandt and Velasquez. Their paintings had an impact on Karsh's own sense of design, composition and lighting.


In Garo's studio, the apprentice was allowed to share encounters with some of the greatest personalities in the world of music, letters, opera and the theater of the 1920s. "Even as a young man, I was aware that these glorious afternoons and evenings in Garo's salon were my university. There I set my heart on photographing those men and women who leave their mark on the world."

In 1932, Karsh returned to Canada and established his studio in the national capital of Ottawa, in close proximity to Parliament Hill. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King discovered Karsh, and became his friend and patron, often arranging introductions with visiting dignitaries for portrait sittings. The Prime Minister also gave Karsh the opportunity to take one portrait photograph that would rocket the photographer to international fame.

On Dec. 30, 1941, Winston Churchill delivered a speech to the Canadian Parliament. …