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Karsh’s art – iconic yet intimate

Canadian photographer's celebrity portraits avoided cynicism and remain revealing decades on.

By Carol StricklandCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 3, 2008

Winston Churchill, 1941: This portrait came to represent the bulldog spirit of the British people. But Churchill’s expression may be as much about his annoyance that Karsh plucked the cigar out his mouth before the shoot.

Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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Before there were paparazzi, there was Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002), the eminent Canadian photographer who specialized in portraits of world luminaries, or "the good, the great, and the gifted," as an Australian exhibition of his work was titled. More than 100 of his iconic, black-and-white portraits can be seen at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston through Jan. 19 in a retrospective, "Karsh 100: A Biography in Images."

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The show, which celebrates the centenary of his birth, inspires déjà vu, not just because the roster is a flashback of masters of the universe in politics, science, and the arts. Karsh's subjects like Albert Schweitzer, George Bernard Shaw, and Cary Grant hail from a vanished era, and his style, too, is like a burnished relic from the 20th century.

Today throwaway images of celebs at their daily tasks, hair askew and paunch hanging out, bombard the public. In contrast, a Karsh portrait is monumental, ready to be carved on Mt. Rushmore. He toted his 350 pounds of equipment to his subjects' studios, homes, and offices to capture them for eternity, in all their majesty.

Karsh's 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill, one of the most reproduced photos ever, launched his career. Churchill had just given a rousing speech to the Canadian parliament during the dark hours of Britain's struggle against the Nazis, but when Karsh confronted the great man for a picture, he was grumpy. After Karsh plucked the cigar out of the prime minister's mouth, Churchill glared balefully at him. The glowering image made the cover of Life magazine, and Churchill's belligerent stare became a symbol of the British people's bulldog spirit.

During a 60-year career, Karsh attempted to record, he said, "the human spirit, the human soul" of "giants of the earth." His highly detailed portraits of movers and shakers can be very moving. They also shake our conventional perceptions. In a tight close-up taken in 1971, Fidel Castro stares into the camera with steely resolve. Yet a few gray hairs in his beard and his soft mouth suggest a well-meaning idealist, the crusading revolutionary he once was.

To Estrellita Karsh, the secret of her husband's success as a person and a photographer lay in his humanity. "The level at which he met" his subjects, she said in an interview, "was primarily human." She believes Karsh's innate optimism and faith in the goodness of people brought out the best in his subjects.

His pictures, shot during both the hot and cold wars, provided hope in a difficult time. Nikita Krushchev, swathed in a fur coat and smiling benignly, seems no more capable than Santa Claus of sending nuclear missiles into Cuba. "The face of the eternal peasant, perhaps the collective portrait of a great people" is how Karsh described the portrait taken in 1963.