How Karsh captures `life, humanity, mankind'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

``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.''

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.''

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