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Karsh: master of portrait photography.

TO STEAL a second, an infintesimal fraction of time--that's the potential of all photographs," says Yousuf Karsh, the world's most renowned portrait photographer. "As I understand it, a portrait is supposed to portray the personality of the person being photographed. You hope that the viewer comes to know the person better. If the portrait has significance and depth, then it will make you feel as if you've known the person all his life.

"No matter how many years pass, I'm still working with the human face, and that hasn't changed. I photograph faces of great experience, of surgeons, of industrialists, those who are involved in humanity and have compassion. I focus my camera on the face and use light and shadow to give people an idea of why this particular person is so accomplished, or so sad, or so tragic. . . ."

The focus of a new book, Karsh American Legends (Little, Brown and Co.), and a traveling exhibition organized by the International Center of Photography, his work has been admired by generations. For the most part, my latest exhibition comprises portraits of distinguished Americans, most of whom I have photographed over the last two years."

Born in Mardin, Armenia, on Dec. 23, 1908, Karsh spent his childhood amidst the horrors of the Armenian massacres. His uncle, George Nakash, brought him to Canada in 1924. After attending school in Sherbrooke, Quebec, he was apprenticed for three years to the eminent Boston portraitist John H. Garo. In 1932, Karsh opened his own studio in Ottawa. Soon, members of the government, visiting statesmen, and other dignitaries came to him to be photographed. He achieved international fame when his celebrated shot of Winston Churchill, which was taken when the then-prime minister of Great Britain visited wartime Canada in 1941, appeared on the cover of Life and set in motion a lifetime of recording those personalities who have defined this century.

"The subject doesn't see the pictures before I pick them, so I'm always on the winning side of that argument," he states with an earnest and knowing smile. "I've published 14 books, and no one to date has ever disapproved of my selections. My approach is to be normal, not sensational. I have respect and a keen appreciation of people and all the hard work it took for them to get where they are.

"Sometimes, my subjects pick me, or, quite often, they are picked for me by different publications. During World War II, for instance, I photographed world figures who came to New York for Life magazine. I did some 60 personalities during that period.

"It is my practice to be thoroughly prepared before I photograph somebody. I'll research the person's background. I'll get to know someone who knows the person. This makes for a cordial and gracious first contact.

"I usually have one or two helpers. After we've gone around the property and picked a spot to photograph, my assistant will prepare the area, and at that point, I have additional time to visit with my subject. One of the great joys and rewards of what I do is renewing acquaintances and friendships over the years. Their presence obviously can be altogether different. For instance, an informal and confident Angela Lansbury showed me the superb roses she cultivated in her home garden--a great contrast to the shy, wide-eyed, diffident 18-year-old actress I first met [many years before]."

The remarkable evolution that only can be brought on by the passing of decades is illustrated by Karsh's treatment of Lansbury in his latest book. Opposite the introduction page is a 1946 portrait of the actress, evoking the youthful beauty she brought to her memorable roles in early efforts such as "Gaslight" and "The Picture of Dorian Gray." Then, inside, is the Lansbury audiences know today. The years have been kind. The book gives the same treatment to Charlton Heston and Julie Harris.

"I usually go to the person I am to portray. I mostly work in their environment. Psychologically, that's important. Even if the picture doesn't disclose the location, it's important psychologically for the subject to feel comfortable. I usually spend two hours with the person I am to portray. That is ample time. Often, I will arrange to meet them the day before the [session] so we can talk over a cup of tea. That way, when it comes time to work, it's as if you've known each other a long time. When we're working, we don't talk very much. The conversation is superfluous at that point; were not really engaging one another.

"I like very much for familiar objects to be part of their expression. If things happen to be there in their environment, we'll use them to help make the person's personality clearer.

"The idea of being shy around the camera is rarely experienced today. The camera is there, and you can not escape it. But the idea is to make the person forget it's there, if only for an instant. My mind and my eyes are open, and I just take advantage of what happens.

"The use of shadow is very important," he adds. "I can't discuss it really because it's something I feel and do intuitively. To bring out the true character of a person, they can be all in shadow, or, they can be in light shadows and still convey a deep feeling.

"For the most part, I've worked with black and white. But what they can do with color these days is quite remarkable. The color printing process is so much better now that I had to take advantage of it. The color [photos in the exhibition as well as the book] are a little more subtle than what I've done previously. I usually like to see color as monochromatic. When you've achieved that, you've done something special."

While each personality requires special attention, Karsh does use rough guidelines when it comes to his subject's attire. "With men, I like to photograph them in whatever they're wearing, although sometimes we will examine the wardrobe together and pick something. The ladies of today are different. Pretty, sophisticated women are very up-to-the-minute with their information on what they should do to look their best. Normally, though, I don't make suggestions concerning what they should wear, and they don't ask me."

A galaxy of notables

Karsh's photographic sessions also have been a study in contrast. The following are snippet remembrances of those provocative encounters from the master himself concerning his subjects.

Jim Henson. "What a great loss to the world. He was a very vivacious and lively person. He was a great admirer of the Russian puppeteer Sergei Obratsuv, who, ironically, I had photographed in 1963 in Moscow. Our session together was a joint effort--with his lovely family all around. He died a few weeks later. His wife called me and asked me to loan a few of my photos to be on view in the cathedral during the memorial service. "

Thomas Wolfe. "A very elegant man, he was uniquely dressed in his style. I photographed him in the older of his two homes. He's a very searching person. And like all writers, he asks a lot of questions. He's a very sophisticated and fastidious gentleman. He's the kind of company you want to meet again and again."

Martha Graham. "It was a glorious experience photographing her; I've always greatly admired her. I've seen her perform many times. She suggested I watch her dance before our session, and I was filled with anticipation. We went to her home, where the ceilings are very low. She sat on a piano bench and made all these different kinds of dancing motions with her arms. She was so accomplished, and her death is a great loss. Happily, her teachings have been perpetuated throughout the dance world. "

Dizzy Gillespie. "He was wonderful to photograph. When he laughs, it comes from right here [Karsh pointed to his stomach], and his systems shake. We did our session in the home of one of his friends. I think he is unaware of the feeling his face carries. Every meeting with him is an experience. "

Leonard Bernstein. "Trying to photograph Bernstein was a very extraordinary experience. They were filming a documentary on him, so there were always nine or 10 people around. He smoked constantly and his glass was always full of whiskey. It made for one of my most provocative sessions ever."

Jasper Johns. "He truly is a very sensitive artist and was full of collaborative ideas. God gave him a beautiful face to photograph--very open. Like all masters of their craft, he is very self-assured. He moves gracefully and possesses a very thoughtful, strong, open face."

Jerome Robbins, "The entire theatrical world owes a great deal to him. He's a magnificent choreographer and his vision of the theatre is indeed impressive. I photographed him in his studio."

Harold Prince. "He is very warm and friendly. A genius. In all the Phantom of the Operas' that he has directed, the entire cast has been very inspired. He sees the whole ensemble and is able to pick out the smallest things that need attention. He knows just the right moment to do something. His timing is inspirational."

Neil Armstrong. "I took to him very readily. When I was to photograph him after his historic voyage to the moon, it was in the NASA library, since that was the only spacious setting there. As you will recall, the early astronauts went through quarantine after their return to Earth, and they playfully hung a sign on the library door which read, |Karsh: No Contamination'! Neil kept asking my wife about all the places we had recently visited. |But Neil,' she said, |you have just been to the moon.' He naively explained, But that's the only place I've been to!'"

Charlton Heston. "When I first photographed him, he was working on |The Ten Commandments.' At one point, Charlton went to give his two-year-old son Frazier a bath. The boy didn't have a stitch of clothes on. I took a wonderful photo of the two of them. Recently, the Hestons called me and asked if they could have a print of that [picture] to give to their son, who's now a full-grown man. It was quite a delightful gift, especially since Frazier never even knew the picture existed."

Fidel Castro. "He is a very stimulating and interesting person. He is well-read and well-informed--and full of curiosity. Before I finally met him, I was shown all around the island [of Cuba] by Celia Sanchez, his Secretary of State, the idea being to show me how Castro had improved conditions since the revolution. Well, after five days of touring, it was time to pick a place for our session. I told them that the library was the place to do the portrait. It was then that I found out that this isolated place was where Castro always went when he wanted to relax. That was his room. He came in, changed his clothes, and offered the hospitality of rum and Coke. It turned out to be a very strong portrait."

Ernest Hemingway. "I knew he enjoyed a certain concoction that he called a daiquiri. And I knew exactly where to get one [a bar in Cuba, near Hemingway's home]. So I ordered my first drink and revolution broke out all around me. And being a typical brave warrior, I got under the table as quickly as possible--with my glass still in my hand. I called the American Embassy so they could send a car to get me out of there. When I told this to Hemingway, he asked why I had called the Ambassador; he would have been glad to come pick me up. You see, everyone knew his car, and respected it. Anyway, the next morning, Hemingway called out to me from his kitchen, What will you have to drink?' I immediately responded, |Daiquiri, sir.' Hemingway was aghast. |At this hour of the morning?,' he yelled. I guess the moral of the story is that you can be over-prepared."

Prince Charles. "Years and years ago, I was to photograph the Prince when he was only three. I also was to photograph the Queen, which I've done six or seven times since then. I met the elegantly dressed young man when he was brought in from the garden, a flower in his buttonhole. I had purchased some small toys in New York to prepare for this occasion. When I presented one to Charles, the young prince firmly grasped the toy with his left hand, and with his right hand, he took off his flower and presented it to me. Many years later, when I told this to Her Majesty, she said, |Oh, was he really that well brought up?'"

Helen Keller. "She was one of God's great gifts to mankind, even though He robbed her of her sight, hearing, and speech. The idea was to get a very sensitive shot of her and her companion, Polly Thompson. At the time, so many young people were so curious about her. They'd all ask, |Tell me something about Helen Keller.' When I first came to this country, one of the first things I ever read was Helen Keller's |How To Appreciate the Beauty of Sunset.' After meeting her, though, I told her that she no longer reminded me of sunset, but rather sunrise, to which she replied, How I wish that the leaders of the world would take the sunrise for their slogan and leave the shadows of sunset behind them.

Boris Yeltsin. "At the end of my session with Yeltsin, he told me, |Please remember that it was Churchill who started the Cold War and I who finished it.' I had to laugh to myself because Gorbachev is thinking the same thing."

For Karsh, however, photography isn't always wonderful. "I think you experience different inspirations through your readings, and life is not always elegant or part of a gratifying atmosphere. For 25 years, I photographed the Multiple Sclerosis poster child. Very often, it was an extremely distressing and sad experience. When you took their picture, you realized that this brother or sister may not be alive five years from now."

Karsh's work, of course, will live on always. And the best part is, he isn't finished. "I'm always asked about retirement. I've given up doing this professionally, or commercially, if you will. I'm no longer given assignments. But I feel I still have a couple of books left in me, so I will continue to photograph people."

The exhibition, "Karsh: American Legends, " is made possible by a grant from Springs Industries, Inc., as part of The Springs of Achievement Series on the Art of Photography. It will be on view at the International Center of Photography, New York, through Jan. 24. It then will travel to the Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C., Feb. 27-April 18.
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No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:photographer Yousuf Karsh
Author:Barrett, Wayne M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Words:2489
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