Affectionate Portraits From a Master's Lens
Photographer Yousuf Karsh talks about his celebrity subjects
YOUSUF KARSH'S exhibition, entitled "American Legends" - a collection of his latest photographs of writers, sports greats, divas, inventors, and more - is a masterful glimpse into a national hall of fame.Skip to next paragraph
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The octogenarian has produced over 50 years' worth of portraits, including popes and presidents, and is something of a legend himself.
In an interview at the Corcoran Gallery here, Mr. Karsh exudes a friendly air. His balding head has puffs of long, almost translucent hair, and his diminutive grandfatherly style strikes a contrast to his custom-made cuffed shirt and elegant suit. His warm voice is accented lightly.
Karsh was born in Armenia in 1908, and his early years were spent in a community terrorized by Turkish violence. "I witnessed atrocities and cruelty the likes of which you only read about," he says. "Happily, I had a remarkable mother who taught me not to hate, and so I have forgotten all that."
He left his homeland at age 18 for Aleppo, Syria, and then traveled on to Canada, where he settled into school.
Soon after, Karsh went to Boston for three formative years of study under the eminent photographer John Garo, a fellow Armenian who quickly became the young student's mentor. Late afternoons spent in Mr. Garo's salon with men and women of arts and letters left a strong imprint on Karsh.
Actors, writers, painters, musicians, designers, and composers are the most dominant groups of portraits among his body of work. "I have a very great appreciation for the world of art. In Boston, I spent every free moment at the Museum of Fine Arts and the public library, which was opposite our own studio," he recalls. Those days were "crowned by Garo's different sessions with his friends," he adds with a smile.
After seeing so much terror as a young child, Karsh has since only recorded remarkable beauty and rich experience through his lens.
Unlike other celebrity photographers (such as Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz), who use their cameras to poke fun at, mock, even depict the darkest side of a subject, Karsh allows the men and women he shoots to revel in the accomplishment and grandeur for which they are known. Many critics have accused Karsh of fawning, of putting a shine on those who pose in front of his camera.
Karsh, though, cannot dim his enthusiasm for people. He has what he calls a "strong attraction to vibrant and vital" personalities. "Perhaps my approach is very constructive," he says.
His first work to win international recognition was his 1941 wartime photograph of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Before he began the session, Karsh says he snatched the trademark cigar from his subject's mouth. The photo, which appeared on the cover of Life Magazine, later provided the model for Churchill commemorative stamps produced all over the globe.
Karsh says his subjects don't shy away from the camera. They are confident, poised. It helps, he says, that he does his best to put them in their element.