The private life of YOUSUF KARSH

How the Armenian boy who fled here from Turkish persecution built a career as a portrait photographer that’s made him almost as famous as his subjects

YOUSUF KARSH October 6 1962

The private life of YOUSUF KARSH

How the Armenian boy who fled here from Turkish persecution built a career as a portrait photographer that’s made him almost as famous as his subjects

YOUSUF KARSH October 6 1962

The private life of YOUSUF KARSH


How the Armenian boy who fled here from Turkish persecution built a career as a portrait photographer that’s made him almost as famous as his subjects

IT WAS ON NEW YEAR'S EVE in 1925 in the harbor of Halifax. Nova Scotia, that the New World opened its heart to me for the first time. I was a sixteen-year-old Armenian youth, the most excited passenger aboard the French liner Versailles, just making port from Beirut. For me, it was the most wonderful New Year's Eve of my life.

1 had come to Canada alone, although some distant relatives were on the same vessel — three or four cousins of my mother who spoke no language other than their mother tongue. 1 do not remember that they had been asked to escort me and indeed I had been helping to look after them during our passage. They needed someone who could speak French or English, and 1 could speak a little of both, although not more than a very little. In English I could distinguish between words like “dog and “God. " hut I had to stop to remember which was which. In French I could do rather better.

My Uncle Nakash. my mother's brother, greeted me as I stepped from the gangplank. He had lived in Canada since about the time I was born. Although

I had never seen him. he had corresponded with my family about my coming to Canada, and now at last he had sponsored me as an immigrant to this new country.

Uncle Nakash recognized me immediately from the photographs my mother had sent to him. and I knew him by the same means. He greeted me in Arabic, my mother tongue, and at once I felt — as I always have felt since — that 1 was among friends in this wonderful new country. I had been brought up to speak Arabic, rather than Armenian, for the simple reason that in Mardin, I urkey, which was my home, w'hcn the Armenian language was spoken there were curses, and very often stones thrown in the street. We seldom heard Armenian spoken except in church.

1 was born in Mardin in eastern Í urkey, on December 23. 1908, of Armenian parents. My father was a fairly successful merchant, engaged in importing and exporting goods ranging from art work to fine furniture, rugs, and spices. In carrying on his business he used to travel to distant lands to buy and



the artist as a young man

sell beautiful and rare things for others on a commission basis. In spite of his undoubted ability in commerce, my father did not know how to read or write: these skills were by no means universal in his time and in his country. What is surprising, however, is that although an educated woman in Armenia was rare, my mother was extremely well read. Among other subjects, she possessed a fine understanding and command of the Bible, being able to interpret splendidly the meaning of its beautiful words.

I was the eldest of the living children of my parents. There was an older brother, but he died in infancy and I never knew him. After me there was a girl, who died during the typhoid fever epidemic in Armenia. Next came my brother IVlalak. born in 1916, and then my brother Jamil, born in 1920. My youngest brother. Salim, was born in Syria in 1926, after we had fled from the terrible persecution that was soon to reach its height in our homeland.


Mardin was a town of about 27.000 souls during my childhood, on the eve of World War I. The buildings of Mardin cloaked the steep south slope of a cone-shaped hill, and the manner in which one tier of houses rose above the tier beneath gave the whole something of the appearance of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. At the peak of the hill were the ruins of an ancient castle, where Muslims had held the Mongolian hordes at bay in a previous age.

In Mardin. too, we tasted manna, as did the children of Israel in the wilderness. This delicious green sugar appeared on the leaves of some trees at certain seasons, and could be scraped off and pressed on to a piece of bread. Or you could allow it to dry up and coagulate, when it would become very hard indeed, and might be broken with a knife and hammer and chewed, like maple sugar. I have read scientific explanations of manna, but preler to think of it as it seemed in my childhood, a delicious food, which came rarely, but always when you were not looking, and which tasted always of just what you liked best. I remember my own father saying that when the faithful tasted manna, the flavor was not the same for all. but for



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“Some of my earliest memories: years of hideous persecution”

each one what he most desired.

Religion played an important part in my early education, although an account of its form must disturb any reader seriously concerned about my spiritual upbringing. My father was a devout Roman Catholic, while my mother — the greatest Christian woman I have ever known — was born into the Protestant faith. 1 myself was baptized in (he Roman Church, and was sent to a Roman Catholic school in Mardin. Indeed, there was serious thought that I might later study for the priesthood. In the end my mother decided against it, and in after years, when we were both in the New World, 1 sometimes teased her, saying, "Well, you know if you had permitted me to study for the priesthood you would have been the first Protestant mother of a Pope.”

I loved my mother and admired the goodness of my father. Religious differences were never discussed by my parents, and 1 was unaware as a child of division among Christians. But the gap that separated us from Islam was a totally different matter.

While the name Armenian does not actually mean Christian, the terms were considered synonymous across Turkey. To be sure, Armenia — lest it be forgotten — was the oldest Christian nation in the world. And although Christians were a minority in my Turkish homeland, the Muslims depended on the Christians in commerce, industry, architecture (many of the mosques were built by

Armenians) and indeed for almost anything that had to be.done. It is not my function to trace the reasons for the terrible reaction born of this relationship throughout my childhood days. Suffice it to say that genocide in the Hitlerian sense was invented by the Turkish masters of my people. For almost twenty years, Armenians were subjected to a systematic campaign aimed at the extermination of my race. This hideous persecution, which began in the closing years of the nineteenth century, forms part of my earliest memories of Mardin. It reached its peak in the bloody atrocities of 1915, and did not end for my immediate family until we were permitted to flee to Syria with our lives — and with nothing more — in 1922.

1 remember two of my uncles, brothers of my mother, who were highly skilled craftsmen. For no reason at all, they were torn from their homes and cast into prison. It was little Yousuf Karsh to whom was delegated the duty of taking food to them in jail. I was chosen because only a child could hope to deliver packages past the soldiers in the streets.

At last I was told that there would be no more packages to deliver to the jail. Word had been brought to us that both my uncles were dead. One had been suffocated in a cupboard, in which he had been forced to stand for hours or days (I do not know which) without food or water, and without air to breathe. The other had heen thrown alive into a well.

There was another member of the Nakash family, my Aunt Nazlie, who also was cast into a well to die. My father succeeded in bribing a Turk to rescue her and we finally nursed her back to health. Ultimately she came to Canada, married, and raised a wonderful family before her death a few years ago. On another occasion

I saw with my own eyes a dead baby hanging on a butcher hook, such as was used to suspend a sheep alter slaughtering.

I have mentioned that I had a little sister, next in age to myself. When we were suffering most acutely from starvation in Mardin, a severe typhoid fever epidemic added to our other troubles. My sister took ill. and in spite of my mother's gentle nursing, died after a few days’ sickness. The epidemic was so severe that no burial service could be arranged. At last my Aunt Lucia found two men who agreed to take her body away for burial. I apologize to my readers for not sparing them, but I remember my horror when Aunt Lucia later revealed that these men had not taken my little sister's body away to bury it. but for another purpose. All I can say is that Mardin was starving at the time.

I recall that as a youngster in Mardin the whole family slept outdoors during the balmy summer nights. We would sleep on pallets on a wooden platform or dais on the terrace, or roof, of our home. I remember. too, a dark-haired young girl cousin, a mere child of seven, who slept on the platform beside my brothers and me. As we lay on our pallets beneath the starry sky. starry as a sky ean he nowhere except in the Near East, this young child would weave fairy tales about ships and voyages and faraway people and marvelous happenings that befell travelers. The stories of the Thousand and One Nights were never more beautifully told, I am convinced, nor told in a setting where they appeared more probable.

Turkey’s order: “Don’t come hack’’

Indeed, my memories of those days, sometimes terribly vivid, sometimes faint, comprise a strange mixture of blood and beauty, of persecution and peace. This is partly because the persecutions themselves continued over many years and life had to go on. albeit fearfully, all the while.

We dreamed always of a time of liberation, a day when we could leave it all behind us. Already my parents had spoken of sending me to Canada to live with my Uncle Nakash in Sherbrooke. At last came the day in 1922 when we heard that the Turkish Government had given permission to the Armenians to emigrate, something that had never been permitted previously. There were hard conditions, of course, but my father was one of the first to accept them. We were to be allowed to dispose of personal effects such as clothing (we had, however, been robbed of most of our belongings) and we were then simply to leave the doors of our houses open and to depart. We were to undertake that we would never return to our homeland again. Nor have I done so.

My Uncle Nakash was a photographer with an established reputation when he took me into his home in Sherbrooke, Quebec, at the beginning of January, 1925.

Uncle Nakash was still a bachelor when I went to live with him. but he treated me as a son from the beginning and. like a good father, packed me off to school a few days after we arrived in Sherbrooke. Of course,

language was the first obstacle I had to overcome. Perhaps because I already spoke a little French, which I hail learned in Syria, my uncle sent me to an English-speaking school so that I might learn English. I was immediately placed in the highest form, which was Grade Seven, for the classes in French, at which I proved to be an apt pupil. For all other classes, 1 sat in what 1 think must have been the kindergarten, and found the course of studies there as difficult as if it had been differential calculus.

However, my classmates (both in Grade Seven and in kindergarten)

were very considerate and I quickly learned to love my new life in Sherbrooke, and even began to show some improvement in my English.

Sometimes the teachers would make a little speech to the class about how I came to be there, and how they should be polite to me at all times because I had the reputation of being unusually courteous myself. I knew they were speaking about me, and saying gracious things about my manners, which I suspect have always erred in the direction of being overly polite. Then I would stand and smile and bow' through all the points of the compass. This always seemed

to please everybody, including the teacher, perhaps because it was the only thing 1 could do really well and which they all could understand.

My formal education in the New World came to an end almost before it had begun. When the summer vacation began six months later, I left school permanently, and went to work for my uncle in his photographic studio. This was another important turning-point in my career, and while I did not realize it fully at the time, everything connected w'ith the art of portrait photography captivated my interest and energy completely from that moment. This was in July, 1925.

Working as an apprentice with my uncle in his studio, I soon became acquainted with all the usual technical processes involved in developing, printing and enlarging. But I particularly recall the special thrill I derived whenever Uncle Nakash had clients in for a sitting. It was then that I listened and watched most eagerly. I had to tune my ear to the special language of the studio, but the repartee between photographer and client always fascinated me. My interested attitude pleased my uncle, who soon began to hint at further plans for my study of photography. In due course he proposed that I go to Boston to work w'ith one of the master portraitists in North America at that time, John H. Garo.

Of all my many debts to Uncle Nakash. his persuading Garo to accept me as an apprentice is the one I have been least able to repay.

Garo was Armenian, too, about fifty years old when I went to him.

His real name was Garoian, but in America he had shortened it to Garo. When I went to Boston in 1928 his name was so famous in the world of photography that 1 had the sensation of being sent to study under a Michelangelo.

The Garo studio was on the second, third and top floors of 739 Boylston Street, not far from the central public library of Boston. At the top of a flight of stairs from the foyer and down a short corridor was the glass door that carried the name of Garo. His name was written on it in ornate Persian characters, set in the heart of a circle. Why Garo, an Armenian, should have chosen to have his name appear in Persian is difficult for me to say. I think he felt that it looked interesting and graceful, even decorative, and perhaps to Americans it did, although not one of his clients could have guessed what it said. I mention this because it was quite out of character for him to indulge in anything that could be described as flamboyant, as perhaps this was.

Garo could be colorful, but he was modest all the way into his soul, and this modesty made him in many ways reticent except when he could relax with friends, and even then he would not lead the fun-making. But when immersed in his work, he could suddenly exclaim to a tense subject. "Now let me sing you the aria from Aida!” And sing it he would in his fine bass-baritone. Thus he w'ould project his personality in the studio, while hiding it in public.

Garo accepted me as a pupil and after six months he even began to pay

me: twenty-one dollars per week, a good starting wage for a junior in any business then. Of these earnings 1 spent four dollars a week for lessons in English. 1 groped along, attempting to learn a few new words each day, and often I tried them out on Garo. 1 remember saying to Garo once, "There seems to he a lot of anxiousity about you.”

I tried to understand everything he did, although he was as unable to explain his every decision in advance in those days as 1 am unable to predict my intentions in a sitting today. But after he had completed his photograph. I would ask him w'hat had led him to decide to portray the subject in this way, or to come to that decision. It is hard to place a value on the opportunity to learn through practical post-mortems such as these, for I w'as in the position of standing beside the great Garo from the moment that the subject arrived until the master print had been approved. Even so, Garo could not explain his art completely; few great artists can. And so he saw to it that 1 went to art classes in Boston, in addition to studying English.

This art school education was valuable to me, as Garo intended, even though it did not teach me to draw. Even at that time, I believe I had a certain flair for lighting, design, and composition. The instructor would often choose me, saying, "Karsh, if you will, please come up on the dais and arrange the drapery on this model.” Then I would step forward eagerly, and arrange the drapery over the model, who w'as usually a nude young lady, and 1 would light the figure carefully as it seemed to me. it should be lighted. Sometimes I would seek to keep the face in shadow arid focus the strong light on the drapery, or on the low'er torso. Sometimes it w'as the profile that deserved lighting. Thus I became a kind of technical assistant to the instructor of art. and would walk with him about the room studying what the students were putting on their drawing-boards instead of drawing myself.

The instructor would discuss with me the lighting effect I had created, and we would criticize the students' work together, one at a time. It was a strange use I was making of the art classes, but 1 was doing what 1 felt 1 could do best. Later I came to realize that the other students were studying drawing, while 1 was thinking only of modeling, mostly w'ith light.

And then Garo left me on my own as well. 1 would purchase my own materials, including glass plates, for we used glass plates exclusively in Garo’s studio. On a week end I would go to the public library, w'hich had become my other home in Boston, and watch the crowds of visitors. If among them I found a young girl, a woman, an old man — it did not matter w'hich — w'ho captured my fancy as a possible camera subject. 1 would cast aside my great natural shyness and invite that person to Garo’s studio. More often than not the chosen subject would come with me, and I w'ould photograph him on my own time. The plates 1 made in this way I processed at night, and the next morning I would show them to my master.

"Ah well!” he would say. "If I were

doing this I would do it differently, and I will tell you why.” And there would follow a critical lecture on my camera interpretation, during which he would transfer some of himself to me in such a way that I would never lose it.

Because Garo was a painter, he would remind me that if you were painting the portrait of a man or a woman, you could not create twelve canvases at a sitting in the hope of finding one good enough to sign.

Similarly in photography. He would say, "Reflect before you expose a plate. Don't expose carelessly, relying on averages through a series of exposures. Make each as perfect as you can.” It was electrifying to watch him at work, and it w'as tiring, very tiring, for him as well as for the person watching.

Sittings in Garo's studio were by daylight — (iaro's preference — and so there were no clients after four o’clock or so in the afternoon. That

hour was the beginning of many a happy and relaxed gathering of artists in a host of fields, who would come to be with (¡aro and with each other.

Some of these gatherings would be planned three or four weeks in advance, and considerable care would be taken to include visiting artists of the theatre or opera who could be expected in Boston at such a time. On the given evening, (iaro’s salon would fill with these men and w'omen of great talent and guests of great

power to appreciate, which is at least as important to the success of any occasion. But the signal for a party often came only out of one of those wonderful causeries that so often began after four o'clock in the afternoon. One of Garo’s artist friends might suddenly say, “Garo! Let us have so-and-so join us, and why do you not call so-and-so? 1 would like to sing for you tonight. 1 feel like it!” And such a request was always acted upon immediately, and the telephoned invitations would be accepted almost without fail. Then, after the last of the guests had arrived, we would hear a great star sing The Song of the Idea, or an aria from Boris Godunof, with parts filled in by others present until the whole assembly shared in the chorus from memory, young Yousuf Karsh included.

My days with Garo were during the depths of the prohibition period but this did not detract from the hospitality that flowed at his studio, although it may have adulterated it slightly. Naturally 1 w'as the bartender, which service Garo seemed to associate with the handling of the chemicals we used in his developing room. “Now for Dr. Kousscvitsky, Yousuf," Garo would say, “let us have a nitric acid.” Which meant that I would mix a gin for the great conductor. “And for Arthur Fiedler some hypo.” hypo being our humorous code-word tor bourbon.

Garo secured his supply ot chemical for the bar I operated from a bootlegger. He was a very honest bootlegger, however, who did not charge too exorbitant a price. The chemical w'as brought to the door, and handed to Garo in turpentine tins. Then I

would go to the drugstore to buy the flavoring. This might be gin flavor, or rye flavor, or rum flavor, or bourbon flavor, even Scotch flavor for the epicures. The flavors came in tubes, and we would use one tube to so much alcohol, and add so much water. If we ran a little short of alcohol. there was always more water.

One of our guests, who frequently brought “hypo” or “nitric acid'’ with him, was Ralph Sadler of the Boston Transcript. He must have had some Eastern blood, for whatever his choice of contribution to the party, he invariably himself preferred our Armenian "raki.” Like many newspapermen. Ralph had a fund of droll stories and he always contributed brilliantly to the humor and gaiety of the occasion. It was Ralph Sadler who intervened w'hen my immigration permit was about to run out, and it even appeared that 1 might have to return to Syria. Through some highly placed friend in Washington, he was able to stop the bureaucratic machine on my behalf.

Another favorite friend was "Pop" Jordan, by profession president of a printing company, and by hobby a photographer of considerable skill. He made one of the first color shots of a rainbow, rushing out of his house in a pouring rain in his pyjamas, while his family followed him with umbrellas and various garments to protect him from pneumonia and the police.

1 stayed with Garo for three years, until 1931, when 1 returned to Sherbrooke and to the practice of my new profession with Uncle Nakash. But already my interest was in personalities rather than merely in portraiture, and the desire to be on my own was willing up inside me with steadily increasing pressure.

Since I was interested in photographing personalities that influence our lives, a world capital seemed a good place to locate. Washington wats impossible for me, because immigration into the United States wats controlled by quota and there was no quota for Armenians at the time. Ottawa was accessible to me. however, and it seemed to me that it would be a crossroads for personages going from London to Ottawa, from Ottawai to Washington, and from Washington to London via Ottawa. I began to ask travelers who came to my uncle's studio representing the Eastman Kodak Company to let me know when they heard of an opening in Ottawa, and one day one of these, whose name was Bell, told me that John Powis of Ottawa “would verymuch like to have a young man w'ith your experience. Some one just like you is what he needs.” I sent samples of my w'ork to Powis. and he wrote to me to come for an interview. As a result, he was enthusiastic about my moving to Ottawa, and within a few' weeks, in the autumn of 1932. 1 packed all my possessions in two suitcases and moved to the capital to work for the Powis Studio.

At first I processed the negatives Powis took, and finished the portraits. Then I began to take more and more of the actual portraits w'hich were issued under his name. Finally I learned John Powis would not be renewing his lease and that he planned to w'ind up his business. I approached the landlord, Mr. E. S. Sherwood,

about leasing to me. and 1 shall always be grateful to him because he made things easy for me at the outset by letting me have my quarters, at 130 Sparks Street, at $65.00 a month. He is still my landlord today.

I had few friends in Ottawa during my first months, but one day in October, 1932, I met a young man who said to me, “1 am going to the theatre tonight, would you like to come along?” He then told me that it was a stage play, La Belle de Hagttena,

and that a lady whom he knew woutd be playing the leading role.

I was not too strongly impressed by the play (which, being in English, 1 had still some difficulty in following), but I was very much struck by the timbre of the voice of the leading lady, for I have always been extremely sensitive to voices. After the performance. my new? friend led me backstage and down to a dressingroom which he entered without knocking on the door. There reclined

an attractive young woman, with one foot pointed toward the ceiling as she pulled on a stocking. She threw a gay smile at her friend, and also at the funny foreign-looking boy who accompanied him, and being Solange, shouted in her rich accent: “Well, if you will come into my dressing-room when Em pulling on my stockings—” and went right ahead with the other one in her uninhibited fashion. She said afterward that she thought it took me several years to get over the shock

of our first meeting, but it was not so: 1 thought she was wonderful, then as always. The three of us spent the rest of the evening together, and 1 did most of the listening. 1 knew instantly that 1 liked Solange Gauthier, that I loved her.

It was not my first offer that she accepted, nor the second, but ultimately she agreed, and we were married in the spring of 1939. Until her death of a malignancy in January, 1961. Solange continued to be my inspiration. business manager and chief reinforcement. And it was she who brought me into association with the Little Theatre movement in Ottawa. It w'as largely through this connection that I started on my present career.

I photographed Solange as an actress, and I watched Solange directing plays. As instructions about lighting effects were given by the directors. a new world was opened to me. This experience of photographing actors on the stage, with stage lighting. was electrifying. Garo had taught me to work with daylight, where one had to wait for the lighting to be right. In this new' situation the director could command the lighting to do what he wished. The unlimited possibilities of artificial lighting overwhelmed me.

At the same time I was appointed official photographer for the first Dominion Drama Festival held in Ottawa in 1933. I had been chosen because I was the only photographer w'ho had concentrated on amateur theatre work, and at that I had not been concentrating very long, perhaps a few months.

Lord Bessborough, Governor General of Canada at this period, wais a prime mover in the establishment of the Festival, and the donor of the Bessborough Trophy annually awarded to the winning performance. It seemed to me that it would be a great accomplishment if I could secure per-

mission to photograph the representative of the Crown in Canada. So I asked his son. Lord Duncannon, if he could persuade his father and mother to sit for me. To my eager delight he brought back their consent. They came to the studio and 1 took photographs, but 1 was too excited and frustrated on this my first major job and my mistakes in English were embarrassing. 1 remember that after photographing Lord Bessborough, 1 was anxious to photograph the statuesque

Lady Bessborough alone, and so 1 said, “Your Excellency, please reclini’ in the reception room with my secretary!"

The upshot was that the photographs were a complete fiasco; 1 don't believe 1 even focussed the camera correctly. So a few days later 1 reported to Lord Duncannon, in great consternation, "I am awfully sorry, l feel sad, it is a complete misfortune, but l was too excited " To my astonishment. Lord and Lady Bessborough

came to sit again and this time the photographs were a great success. They were published everywhere, double-page spreads in the Illustrated London News, in The Taller, in The Sketch, across Canada in many publications.

My career had now at last begun. ★

First of two anides from "In search of greatness" by Yousuf Karsh, University of Toronto Press. The second will appear in the ne.xt issue.