Yousuf Karsh 1908–2002. In Search of Greatness – Reflections of Yousuf Karsh, is a 210-page book published by the University of Toronto Press in 1962. It holds 16 scattered b&w photographs, a few of Karsh. In it he describes his life in Canada and abroad as a portrait photographer, starting with his arrival in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1925, on New Year’s Eve. He was a 16-year-old Armenian teenager from Mardin, Turkey, traveling unaccompanied. Fleeing the harsh political turmoil in his country, his family walked away from their house, leaving the doors open. Karsh spoke Arabic along with English and French. He was able to communicate with people almost anywhere he travelled globally. His uncle Nakash, in Sherbrooke, Quebec was his sponsor. Fittingly, his first ride was in a sleigh-taxi drawn by horses with bells on their harnesses, before he and his uncle boarded a train to Quebec.
Leaving grade school, he began helping his uncle in his photographic studio, where he quickly mastered the basics of photography. What excited him most was when people arrived at his uncle’s studio for their portraits. He learned how to interact with customers. His uncle connected him with John Garo in Boston, one of the master portraitists, whom Karsh began working with in 1928. His uncle also gave him his first camera while he lived in Sherbrooke. When his landscape photograph won a contest ($50) put on by the T Eaton Company, he gave $10 to his uncle and sent the rest to his family in Aleppo. In 1931 he left Boston, worked a couple of more years with his uncle, then moved to Ottawa to be close to important personalities that fascinated him. He was a people-person. Nature is rarely mentioned in his book. People were always the destinations of his travels. If he did notice plants and animals in his travels, these were not part of his prose, at least not in this book.
He met his future wife, Solange, an actress and director of plays in Ottawa. Through her and theatre groups, he realized the power of artificial lights to cast a mood and illuminate what you want when you want, instead of waiting for natural light to perform its miracles on the human face. Indoor still photography became his means of expression. He was chosen in 1933 to be the official photographer of the first film festival in Ottawa. A few of his photos began to appear in Saturday Night (1887–2005) a general interest magazine published in Toronto. Rather soon he met the editor of SN and over the years published often in the magazine, several times on the cover. His popularity grew. The self-glorification of humanity has been with us since we peered at our reflection in a still pool of water before having a drink. With the help of a political friend, Karsh began to take portraits of important politicians and people in Canada. Like all artists, the start was a struggle. He did some commercial work and passport photos for $1 each. He hired a secretary at $17 per week.
With letters of introduction by Canadian Prime Ministers, and help from Canadian diplomats, he took portraits of politicians, actors, doctors, generals, scientists, writers, musicians, etc. Reflecting the times, most of his portraits were of famous or powerful men, at home and abroad. He did assignments for Life, Macleans and Time. With the complexities of personalities over the years, some were a joy to picture, others no so much. Some became friends. He also took portraits of “the common man” but preferred the famous, as did most of the public viewing his images and buying his books. Macleans asked him to visit Canadian cities and photograph whatever aspects of them he found interesting. Some locals agreed on his choices, others disagreed. Time sent him to the Arctic to photograph wild flowers in bloom. There his local Inuit assistant was better than average.
In Chapter 5, Photographic Reflections, he writes about his ideas on photography, painting, and art. Being a common still photographer, he fell into the common trap when he read about Alfred Stieglitz and his ideas on photography as art. On Stieglitz and his journal Camera Work, Karsh “The fault was that it [Camera Work] was aimed at encouraging photographers to emulate painters, which was wrong.” Karsh was probably taking about Pictorialism. Individual opinions change. Stieglitz and others eventually abandoned fuzzy pictures and switched to a clear, clean modern image that we are stuck with to this day, by so-called masters like Jeff Wall and Andreas Gursky, with their real, in focus, detail-rich images of people, places and things, with or without digital help from Photoshop. Today’s old-fashioned curators who control gallery walls love what Jeff Wall brings them; a true revolutionary. Would Stieglitz approve? Somehow, I equate Karsh’s portraits to great charcoal drawings. Some are backlit and with highlights on the face, revealing the topography where we all look for recognizable details and where the unblinking eyes in his images sometimes stare back at us. Some of his shadows I find visually disturbing.
On page 104 he had a vision of the future, when a camera with a small screen showed what the camera was seeing. My digital camera does that. When he traveled, he took up to 300 pounds of equipment overseas plus an assistant or two. At one point he had his Chrysler shipped so he and his wife could get around in comfort. Once his income grew, he stored one set of equipment in Britain and another set in Europe. Near the end of his reflections, Karsh mentions how a Canadian Politico wanted the Pope to sign a photo of himself by Karsh. When the image was placed in the Pope’s hands, he didn’t know whether to sign in French or English, so he used Latin.
Karsh had a few books published of his portraits. All of them sold well. People like to look at famous faces, the familiar. It makes them feel connected through good or bad memories. Karsh’s photos were formulaic, with few highlights and an abundance of rich grays. They were and are great presentations in gray. They seemed fresh in this 60-year-old book. They have staying power. He was given a large solo show at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, a city he called home. TJR 17 January 2018
Tom Reaume’s new 93-page photo ebook, Photography Traditions, is free at trart.ca