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Karsh’s art – iconic yet intimate

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

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Karsh's absence of bitterness or cynicism is all the more surprising, given the trauma of his childhood. Born in Armenia in Turkey, he and his family suffered persecution and witnessed the massacres of 1915 before escaping to Syria in 1922. As a 17-year-old, Karsh spent 29 days in steerage on a boat to Canada, where he arrived hungry, penniless, and knowing no English. He studied the Old Master paintings of Rembrandt and Velázquez in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts to learn the arts of chiaroscuro and composition and mastered dramatic theatrical lighting when he set up shop in Ottawa, Canada.

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Karsh searched for the moment when personality, character, mind, and spirit are revealed in a subject's eyes, hands, and gesture.

This quest often required cajoling. The artist Joan Miró showed up with his hair slicked back, dressed like a banker in a Savile Row suit. "Is this the way you work?" Karsh asked. "Of course not," Miró answered. "I want to photograph the artist," Karsh said, "not just someone on a Sunday afternoon."

"Slowly, slowly," Mrs. Karsh recalls, "we got the work clothes on." The portrait shows the artist holding a paintbrush, his hands spotted with paint, a mischievous smile on his lips, and a "you found me out" gleam in his eye.

His subjects often recognized the inner truth of their portraits. When Tennessee Williams was in rehab trying to kick his alcoholism, he wrote Karsh requesting his photograph. The picture, taken in 1956 when Williams was at the top of his game, shows the writer pausing at his typewriter, his brow furrowed and smoke wreathing his head as if he's burning with ideas and creativity. "I want to look at it and remember," Williams wrote, "and become that person again."

Karsh did not glamorize his famous or infamous subjects. "He was not Pollyanna-ish and not naive," Mrs. Karsh says. "He knew there were terrible people, and he had experienced terrible things." But he had the ability to "reach beneath the exterior and beneath the press hype if the person were famous or notorious and get to the person beneath."

Ernest Hemingway, photographed in Cuba in 1957 with his weather-beaten face, looks profoundly sad. Albert Einstein, his mane of hair tamed and eyes shining in a 1948 photo, seems like a gentle soul of "essential goodness," which Karsh said he felt in his presence. When Karsh asked, "To whom should we look for the hope of the future of the world?" Einstein replied, "To ourselves."

To Karsh, his subjects were heroes. Papa Hemingway might have provided a counterpoint, as in the final words of his novel "The Sun Also Rises": "Isn't it pretty to think so?"