How Karsh captures `life, humanity, mankind'
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``I do my homework before I photograph someone,'' says Karsh. ``What makes them tick, why are they creative, which of their talents is so coveted? For Hemingway it was all revealed in the supreme melancholy in his face; [for] Helen Keller it was the tenderness in her fingers; Einstein showed his wisdom and compassion in his face.''Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Karsh is a grandfatherly jumble of humor, broad culture, and wisdom -- and a paragon of courtesy. Soft-spoken and articulate, he blends teatime with anecdotes on the famous people he has photographed.
``I love this picture of Casals,'' he says, pointing to a photograph of the famous cellist photographed from behind while playing Bach in the Abbey de Cuxa in Prades. ``I have never before or since photographed someone from behind. Mr. Casals loved it and asked me what prompted the idea. I told him I wish I could have such inspiration more often.''
For the photographer's most famous anecdote, Mr. Karsh leads his guest with a sure grip of the hand to street level and across Wellington St. to the Canadian Parliament. After an electrifying speech there in 1941, Winston Churchill stepped into the Speaker's Chamber, where Mr. Karsh was waiting to take a photograph. When Karsh set up his lights for the photo, Churchill kept chomping vigorously on a cigar. Karsh walked over, plucked it out of Churchill's mouth, and with a click of the shutter recorded Churchill's look of pure belligerence. The Prime Minister told him afterward, ``You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.''
The photograph established Karsh's name worldwide and has since been used on seven different postage stamps by seven different countries. ``If I had given it a thought,'' Mr. Karsh remembers, ``I would never have dared do it. I did it intuitively.'' Later he adds that spontaneity, a generous and open mind are the most important tools he takes to his photo sittings.
Mr. Karsh returns with his visitor to his studio in the monolithic Ch^ateaud Laurier. The doors swing open to reveal what, to many, are the definitive likenesses of many historic figures: Ernest Hemingway, Albert Schweitzer, Georgia O'Keeffe, Pablo Casals, Winston Churchill are portrayed in poster-size black and white -- brilliant in tone, needle sharp.
``He has enormous skill in being able to work with classical lighting,'' says Dr. Roskill, ``a kind of lighting which is very controlled, clearly showing off what you want to see in a person.''
Some of Mr. Karsh's photography has been criticized for looking so official, well-honed, and controlled as to suffer from being stereotyped. Critics cite more striking techniques of others: the antifashion technique of Richard Avedon; figures leaping in the air by Philippe Halsman; those that include relevant environmental details in the manner of Arnold Newman.
But Dr. Roskill says Karsh's work will maintain its popularity a century hence. ``I think styles or methods in portrait photography tend to have some kind of lasting power because, when you look back at them, you associate that way of working with a particular period. They have the feeling of the original period built into them. Good photography retains that power.''
A few steps beyond the studio's small reception area, work continues in a compact carpeted area and darkroom, where the artist introduces the man Karsh calls ``an artist in his own right,'' Karsh's printer for 32 years, Ignas Gabalis. ``Mr. Karsh is the architect, and I am the bricklayer,'' says Mr. Gabalis, when asked how much of the finished product is the printer's handiwork. ``And if ever I get a brick out of place, then he comes after me.''
Mr. Karsh says he is often asked whether there are as many great men and women to photograph today as in the past. ``There seems to be less,'' he says. ``But I remain the eternal optimist, encouraged by the greatness in the many I've seen.'' If there has been anything in common among the figures Mr. Karsh has witnessed through history, he says, ``it is that there was no indication of hatred for anyone or any cause.'' He says many had the ability to perceive order out of seeming chaos -- notably Robert Frost and Albert Einstein, who had the messiest studies he ever saw.
He says photography is more alive today than ever in history. And he welcomes new directions in photography advanced by Robert Frank's ``The Americans'' -- the forerunner of new-wave modern photographic art. He also lauds Museum of Modern Art photographic curator John Szarkowski, whose book ``Mirrors & Windows'' took photography well beyond traditional photojournalism techniques to include street art and new modes for the traditional ``snapshot.''
``These indicate fresh ways of looking, feeling, and seeing,'' says Karsh, returning to his point of broadening one's total outlook. ``Any camera will give you a great photo -- once. Go to the library, study music, literature, art -- learn to see what is really good, enduring, and true. And capture it.''