A Legacy of Light: Yousuf Karsh
The story behind his iconic portrait of Winston Churchill has become the stuff of photographic legend. Yousuf Karsh was asked to take a quick portrait of the Prime Minister after a speech. Churchill was in a bad mood to begin with because he didn’t realize the portrait had been scheduled. He told Karsh, rather grumpily, that he had two minutes. Karsh got Churchill in the chair and asked him to take the cigar out of his mouth, but Churchill refused. On the ruse of taking a light meter reading, he walked up to Churchill and said, “Forgive me, Sir,” yanked out the cigar, and snapped the shutter just as Churchill grimaced. His nerve, rather than angering Churchill further, actually impressed him. The story goes that Churchill smiled at him and said, “You may take another one.”
With most of the Photographer Spotlights, I have been fascinated with the photography. I end up studying each image and wondering how the photographer actually got the shot. With Karsh, I knew his portraits were good. Flawless, actually. His reputation preceded him. But his life is what I ultimately became drawn into. The story of Churchill is just one of many that Karsh was able to tell in over six decades of shooting the most famous, powerful, and influential people in the 20th century. From Einstein to Picasso to Hemingway to Clinton, Karsh loved every moment of his job and felt very lucky to be in the company of such incredible people. When he spoke of meeting and photographing Einstein he said, “One did not have to understand his science to feel the power of his mind or the force of his personality. He spoke sadly, yet serenely, as one who had looked into the universe, far past mankind’s small affairs. When I asked him what the world would be like were another atomic bomb to be dropped, he replied wearily, ‘Alas, we will no longer be able to hear the music of Mozart.’
His own life was just as fascinating as the people he photographed, though. Born in Turkey, at the age of 14 he fled with his family to Syria in order to escape the Armenian Genocide. He watched his sister die of starvation as they were driven from village to village. Saving every penny, his father was able to send him to live with his uncle in Canada at the age of 17. This uncle, a photographer, would be the one who shaped his life. When he first arrived in Canada, Karsh had dreams of becoming a doctor. This changed the moment his uncle gave him his first camera. Every spare moment after that was spent shooting. A school friend secretly entered one of his photographs in a contest and it won earning him $50. He gave ten of it to his friend and sent the rest to his family, feeling very proud that this was the first money he was able to send them.
His uncle arranged a photography apprenticeship for Karsh with a friend in Boston, John H. Garo, a well-known portrait photographer at the time. Not only did he learn the technique of shooting, developing, and printing, but Karsh says Garo taught him how to see. He encouraged Karsh to take art classes at the university. He never learned how to paint, but the classes did teach him about light, color, and composition. Garo was also surrounded by artist friends, people Karsh says were men and women of great talent. This was during the days of Prohibition so he acted as bartender as they served up drinks from old paint cans. Karsh knew this was an education he would never get in any school and he soaked it up. He knew then that he wanted to photograph the men and women who would leave their mark on the world.
When Garo passed away Karsh felt an extreme loss. He said that what he felt at that time he has come to hold as truth, that, “It is rarely possible to repay directly those who have rendered us great personal kindnesses. But it is also futile to rationalize and say that the time for sacrifice, to repay just moral debts, is past — for I do not believe that time ever passes. Nature does not often collaborate with men to permit simple repayment, whether the debt is from son to father, from soldier to comrade, or from pupil to master. We may never be able to pay directly for the gifts of true friendship — but pay we must, even though we make our payment to someone who owes us nothing, in some other place and at some other time.”
Karsh was considered a master of studio lights. He fell in love with the use of artificial light when he was asked to work with the Ottawa Little Theater. Up until that point he had worked solely with natural light in Garo’s studio. He was amazed at the versatility he now had available to him. Being able to change mood at the drop of a hat was a whole new world being opened. One of his favorite techniques was to light the subject’s hands separately, which make the portraits all the more compelling. The light doesn’t just drift away, every detail is there. The subjects look sculpted. His photographs were frequently compared to old master painters. His photo of George Bernard Shaw looks very much like a black and white Rembrandt.
One of the things Karsh would do before a sitting is to research his subject as much as possible beforehand. This would help establish a rapport between himself and whoever he might be photographing. He knew that he would only have a short time to get the mask to be dropped. He said, “The endless fascination of these people for me lies in what I call their inward power. It is part of the elusive secret that hides in everyone, and it has been my life’s work to try to capture it on film. The mask we present to others and, too often, to ourselves may lift for only a second—to reveal that power in an unconscious gesture, a raised brow, a surprised response, a moment of repose. This is the moment to record.”
Like any creative endeavor, the quality of the work is directly proportional to the passion of the person holding the brush, the pen, or in this case, the camera. Karsh had a relentless passion for what he did. He once said, “I look forward to every working day and I feel I am in the most exciting work in the world.” He was able to meet and speak to some of the most important people of the last century and, although, he was thrilled to be able to do that, he gave the same attention and respect to whoever the subject happened to be – politician or farmer, royalty or fisherman. He knew he was capturing a moment that no one else was able to do. It has been estimated that Karsh photographed more than 17,000 people over his six decades of shooting before he died in 2002.
BOOKS: Yousuf Karsh