How Karsh captures `life, humanity, mankind'
ANYONE can click a shutter,'' says the world's leading portrait photographer of statesmen, scientists, movie stars, and artists. With penetrating eyes that look as though they see you more clearly than you see yourself, Yousuf Karsh admonishes the aspiring photographer: ``To capture greatness, don't be overconcerned with lenses, light, and film -- be a student of life, humanities, and mankind.'' Fifty years of capturing greatness have obviously enriched this Armenian-born Canadian who revolutionized portrait photography by taking the ``studio'' to his subjects. Besides a lecture schedule that has accelerated in recent years, Mr. Karsh has just photographed, inside of two months, the Queen of England, new Canadian Prime Minister and Mrs. Brian Mulroney, Leonard Bernstein, Rudolf Serkin, Zubin Mehta, and the 1984 Nobel laureate, Bishop Desmond Tutu.Skip to next paragraph
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Beyond that, two years after his 75th birthday coincided with the publication of his 50-year retrospective, ``Karsh,'' his popularity shows no signs of waning:
In October, Queen Elizabeth opened a Karsh exhibit as the inaugural exhibition of the new Museum of Photography, Film, and Television at Bradford, England -- visited by 92,000 people. When the exhibit later moved to the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland, it drew the highest attendance ever in the history of the gallery.
Mr. Karsh's 75th birthday exhibition, which opened in September 1983, will tour through fall 1986 to eight American cities. It is currently in the Minnesota Museum of Art in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
A documentary film on his life and work has just been completed by the famous documentarist, Harry Rasky, and is scheduled for release on United States public television next year.
``I'm busier than I've ever been,'' he says from an antique English bentwood chair in his apartment near the Canadian Parliament. ``Much busier,'' says his second wife, Estrellita, who married Mr. Karsh in 1962 and is his frequent companion wherever he travels.
For the visiting journalist who has come to be enlightened about the Karsh technique -- cameras, lighting, film processing, and printing -- Mr. Karsh will laugh and exclaim, ``All those things are available to everyone; it is the meeting of minds that is recorded.'' An afternoon with the photographer will help explain a life that has kept him, in his own words, ``young in heart, adventurous, forever seeking, and always aware that the heart and the mind are the true lens of the camera.''
When not globetrotting -- about six months per year -- the couple spends the cold Ottawa winters in this one-bedroom flat adorned with an eclectic array of art and artifacts. Many, including busts of Mr. and Mrs. Karsh by sculptors Jacques Lipchitz and Giacomo Manzu, were given by the artists themselves. In the summer, home is Little Wings, a spacious, pink stucco house on the banks of the Rideau River seven miles south -- which Mr. Karsh built in the late 1930s.
The photographer has appeared for an interview impeccably suited with the striped, split-collar shirts he has custom-made by a local Ottawa tailor. Greek coins sparkle from his cufflinks. The shirts and his beloved black Borsalino hats are his trademark. ``I pick up three of them whenever I am in Rome,'' he says of the crushable wool hats he loves because they are so rugged and versatile.
He explains that he fled his homeland in 1922 during the Turkish massacres, ``taking no baggage, only our lives.'' He has written extensively on a childhood of bitter memories. At age 16 he moved to Canada to live with his Uncle George Nakash, a photographer who gave Yousuf his first camera. After winning first prize in a local photo contest, Karsh apprenticed with famed Boston portraitist John Garo for three years.
It was then, he recalls, ``I knew I wanted to photograph those men and women who leave their mark on the world.'' Karsh has left his own mark on the world by lifting the masks ``we present to others and, too often, to ourselves.'' He describes his life work as capturing that brief moment ``when all there is in a man's mind and soul and spirit may be reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the elusive `moment of truth.'''
``Karsh became famous because he found a way to take portable lights to his subjects,'' says Dr. Mark Roskill, professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. ``He became skilled at quickly sizing up his environment, setting his lighting, and capitalizing very quickly once he maneuvered his subjects so that a telling aspect of their character would come across on film.''
After a shooting date is arranged, the photographer and up to two assistants tote some 250 pounds of equipment from his studio to the subject's home or office. He took Martin Luther King's picture in Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church and Franois Mitterrand's in the French President's study. He tries to arrive the day before a session to set up his 8 by 10 Calumet camera and lighting.