Picturing Communism: Yousuf Karsh, Canadair, and Cold War Advertising

By Opp, James | Queen's Quarterly, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Picturing Communism: Yousuf Karsh, Canadair, and Cold War Advertising


Opp, James, Queen's Quarterly


Renowned for his portraits of the famous and his heroic renderings of the modern worker, photographer Yousuf Karsh was also called into service in the early years of the Cold War--to put a face to Canada's communist foes at home and abroad. As always, each Karsh image had more than one intriguing story to tell.

IN 1955 Canadian readers of many popular magazines--including Reader's Digest, Maclean's, Time, the Financial Times, and the Financial Post--encountered an extensive advertising campaign that asked provocatively, "Do we actually know where to face Communism?" Sponsored by aircraft manufacturer and defence contractor Canadair, eight different advertisements on this theme appeared over the course of the year. The topics ranged from "Communism's Ability to Invade Canada" to "Communism and Christianity" to "Communists--World's Finest Athletes," and all included a patriotic appeal for "young men" to join the armed forces.

The advertisements were a sequel to a similar campaign from the previous year, "Worth Defending," which had stressed the need for Canadians to be ready "morally, spiritually and physically to defend our freedoms against communistic ideology." In visual terms, the "Worth Defending" campaign had relied upon line drawings of people and buildings, idealized figures employed to represent the positive attributes of Canadian society that were "worth defending," from "the lives of our children" to "self-government" to "freedom of vocation." For the 1955 campaign, however, Canadair and its advertising agency were determined to address communism in a "more direct, more revealing manner." In following this strategy, the subheadings of the new advertisements pronounced ominously that "World Revolution is Still Alive" and warned of the dangers of "Communism and Twisted Education."

As the text for advertisements hardened, so did the visual representation of communism, the soft allusion of line drawings giving way to the concrete realism of photographs that occupied almost half of the space for the full-page ads. Photographs seemed to provide a sharpened sense of the "threat" of communism. However, Canadair and its advertising company were not simply interested in the indexicality of photographs to represent something more "real"; they were also eager to highlight the photographer they had commissioned for this purpose. Carefully included beneath the right-hand corner of each photograph in the series was the tagline "Photographed especially for Canadair by Karsh."

ALTHOUGH Karsh's commercial work depicting the heroic worker has received scholarly attention, little consideration has been given to his active role in the Canadair campaign, which was far more explicit in its political and ideological position. Contracted by the Montreal office of the Walsh Advertising Company, Karsh collaborated closely with the ad men on designing the scenes to be photographed. The agency was quick to boast that it wished to take "full advantage of Karsh's ability to interpret the character of a situation, and afford him sufficient leeway to inject his own personality into the interpretations." While admitting that certain themes had been established, the agency claimed that the copy for the advertisement "was not written until the photograph was taken, so that it might match the mood of the illustration more effectively." In picturing communism for the Canadian consumer, it appeared that the visual preceded the textual narrative--Karsh's "vision" of the threat given priority, both in the layout of the advertisement and in determining the actual words.

But how does one represent an ideology through photographs? How could communism be given concrete visual form in a manner that would suit the needs of Canadair? By delving deeply into these advertisements as sites of intersecting gazes and sites of material cultural production, I explore both the faith placed in photographs to represent something as amorphous as the communist threat and the difficulties inherent in achieving a coherent visual message that could speak to the demands of the copy text set forth by the advertising agency. …

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