Portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh has made a specialty of getting his own way—and talking about it. As a result, Karsh has not resisted telling again, in his lavish new book Karsh: A Fifty-Year Retrospective, published by the University of Toronto Press at $47.50, about how he single-handedly conquered Winston Churchill in 1941. The bulldoggish British leader was in Ottawa delivering his “Some chicken; some neck” speech to Parliament. But the words that illuminate Karsh’s memory came a few minutes later when Churchill confronted Karsh’s lights and camera in the Speaker’s Chamber. “What’s this?” growled Churchill. “Why was I not told?” At last, he said: “You may take one.” But there was the problem of the cigar. Karsh did not want to photograph a cigar. So he extracted it from the Churchillian jowls and took his pic-
ture. Churchill froze, then relented. “You may take another one,” he said. “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”
That first Churchill portrait, capturing the essence of British determination which carried the nation through the Second World War, also won worldwide recognition for the Armenianborn, Ottawa-based, globe-trotting photographer who would go on to take the definitive portraits of the leading political, artistic and scientific personalities of the century. So powerful is his talent that the strongest single image of Winston Churchill is Karsh’s portrait. The same is true of John F. Kennedy, of Nikita Khrushchev and Ernest Hemingway. Karsh is the acknowledged interpreter of the world’s celebrities. As he sees them, so do others. Because of that, it is easy to forgive his affection for self-publicity—and for the fact that the first portrait in Karsh is of himself.
Karsh’s varying interest in his sub-
jects is clear from the sometimes extensive, often brief, captions beside each photograph. For the formal portrait of the Queen and Prince Philip in 1967, Karsh provides only a simple statement of the event. For Churchill, he offers a thousand words. Fidel Castro is awarded a long caption and three photographs while Margaret Thatcher rates only one picture and a chatty quip about her daily domestic routine: she prepares breakfast for her family, then goes off to Parliament.
In a fit of noblesse oblige, Karsh devoted four pages to portraits of another photographer, Edward Steichen, the genius of the camera’s preceding generation whom the younger Karsh unabashedly idolized. There is a cleanshaven Steichen as naval commander, taken in 1944, and Steichen as the bearded patriarch of photography in 1970. Karsh later confided to Steichen his utter nervousness the first time they met, in 1944. Karsh was so tense when he photographed his idol that, when he saw the prints later, he realized they were below par. He asked for, and received, a second sitting. The older man later compared their first meeting to his First World War experience in France, when he was about to photograph the great Impressionist painter Claude Monet. Steichen said he got as far as the château gate, “but I was too in awe of the great artist even to ring the bell.”
Sometimes the text is interesting as gossip: Leonid Brezhnev, photographed in 1963, loved fashionable clothes and had a thorough knowledge of Hollywood movie stars. During a 1963 photo session in Moscow, Nina Khrushchev commented that Nikita’s fur coat was the same one that British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had worn when he and Khrushchev went tobogganing. “Mr. Macmillan fell off,” she recalled, “and my husband did not.” One anecdote was prophetic: during a White House session with president-elect Kennedy, running-mate Lyndon Johnson distractingly walked into the room. For an instant, Kennedy forgot his stage presence and Karsh took a portrait of a vulnerable, almost wistful, human being.
Karsh seems capable of drawing remarkably candid comments from his celebrity clients. In 1945 while photographing the future King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, he asked the Arab leader why he was the only one who had not made a speech at the San Francisco Conference, which established the United Nations. Faisal replied, “Public speaking is like the winds of the desert: it blows constantly without doing any good.” Sometimes the comments are simply fun. Karsh visited Canadian hu-
morist Stephen Leacock in 1941. The encounter resulted in a set of portraits that Leacock later declared worthy of “the Stephen Leacock Non-Existent Gold Medal.” Leacock invited Karsh for a boat ride. When the photographer moved toward an outboard, Leacock shouted, “No, no, we’re going out in the canoe. I’ll paddle.” When Karsh asked why the author would make such a choice, Leacock replied: “Because the motor boat always gets there.”
Karsh is fascinated not only by faces but also by gestures. He has devoted an entire section of the book to hands, arguably the most expressive appendages humans possess. Karsh isolates the hands of his sitters with dramatic stagelighting; he crops the prints so that the hands are disembodied, independent; they seem to have a life and spirit of their own. Albert Schweitzer’s weathered hands repose on his bookshelf; the stage personality of Quebec actor Gratiën Gelinas is caught in a montage of starkly lit hands; Muhammad Ali is represented by his clenched fists, cuffed in a pinstripe suit.
The book is not totally devoted to the great of our time. The chapter “On Assignment” includes some landscapes
and the human bustle of cities around the world. In 1963 Maclean’s sent him across Canada to document the individuality of 16 cities. True to form, Karsh saw the cities in the faces and movement of their people. If this book is a true indication of his total output,
Karsh cannot see an uninhabited landscape or an empty street. He sees people and permits surroundings to intrude on the human portrait only to a closely controlled degree. Landscape and cityscape are rarely more than a backdrop to the human drama that attracts the photographer’s main interest.
Karsh is much like a film director who shoots stills: he is interested in the heroic personality, dramatically lit and dramatically clothed. He searches for the unusual, often spontaneous gesture. But he prefers artificial stage lighting, which he learned as the photographer for Ottawa’s Little Theatre. Sometimes the subject’s face is full-frame (François Mitterrand) and often barely glimpsed amid voluptuous costume (Karen Magnussen). He is frequently formal, as in the Kennedy portrait, and just as frequently offhand, as in the broadgrinned Leacock study. Karsh alters his approach to suit his subject.
The bulk of the book is
devoted to black-and-white photography, with a dozen refreshing color portraits up front. Sophia Loren is a sparkling delight and actor Alain Delon exudes his customary threatening masculinity. But Karsh’s color work rarely achieves the sense of monumental proportion that always distinguishes his monochromes. Like many film directors who achieved fame with their work for the silver-only screen, the later Technicolor forays come off as casual, incidental and somehow less meaningful. That is probably a result of the medium itself. Color photography is so immediate that it can transform a hero into the man next door. Black-and-white photography keeps the hero at a distance, which is where, and how, heroes remain heroic in the public mind.
Karsh visited one of his heroes, Harry S. Truman, in retirement years after his political career had ended. The former president of the United States had taken up painting as a hobby, as Churchill had done years before. Truman, in fact, was working on a portrait of Churchill when Karsh joined him, and Karsh was pleased to see that Truman was painting from a photograph. The 1941 Karsh photograph.
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