- By Gordon N. Converse
- Gordon N. Converse is the Monitor's chief photographer. For as long as most of us can remember, Yousuf Karsh has been the world's leading portrait photographer of the great and near-great. He has officially recorded the faces of our time in both a personal and classical way. It must have been in the late 1940s that I met Karsh for the first time. He had been invited to Kent State University as a guest speaker at a visual seminar for young photojournalists. His remarkable portraits of leading personalities were on display. I had not before seen photographic prints so huge and beautiful. His poster-size, black-and-white masterpieces were brilliant in tonal quality. Everything was needle sharp. Everyone was deeply impressed, too, by the subjects he had photographed - Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller. On and on they went! During the day at Kent, the soft-spoken Canadian photographer freely shared his experience and priceless knowledge. And even though 30 years has intervened, I remember well what he said: ''Do your homework well, before you meet your client or go on location with your camera. Strive for perfection on everything you do, even though you know it is unattainable.'' This year, to mark Karsh's 75th birthday, we have his latest book, ''Karsh: A Fifty-Year Retrospective,'' to add to an already impressive list: ''Portraits of Greatness'' (1959); ''In Search of Greatness'' (1962); ''Karsh Portfolio'' (1967 ); ''Karsh Portraits'' (1976); and ''Karsh Canadians'' (1978). With a number of these already on my bookshelves, I asked what a new book could possibly add. Would it contain mostly material we had already seen? I was pleased to find freshness and up-to-date innovation in Karsh's work. The dust cover, for instance, is an eye-catcher. In beautiful color it captures the striking, mature face of Sophia Loren (1981). The first 12 pages are also in color. Until seeing these photos, I hadn't been aware that Karsh has photographed in both color and black and white for many years. Only recently, though, has he found color that meets his standards for muted and subtle facial tones. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip look ever so beautiful in a 1966 color photograph taken in Buckingham Place. This book is by far the largest and most lavish of all that Karsh has produced, and it has more to tell the reader about the photographer himself than the earlier books. Its contents are rich. They draw on half a century of kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers, statesmen and politicians, artists, authors, actors and actresses, musicians, and scientists. In his text alongside one photograph, Karsh enjoys relating the story of how Winston Churchill started the photographer on the road to fame. In 1941 Churchill had just completed an electrifying speech in Canada's Parliament. It was just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Minutes later Karsh was ready to make an ''official portrait'' in the Speaker's Chamber. As lights came on Churchill growled, ''What's this? What's this?'' With little or no time to explain Karsh stepped forward and said, ''I hope to make a portrait of this historic occasion.'' Churchill lighted a fresh cigar, puffed, growled again . . . then relented. ''You may take one only.'' With these orders Karsh focused once again, stepped forward, and plucked the cigar right out of Churchill's mouth. At this point the guest speaker could have devoured the photographer! Karsh snapped the shutter, and the look of the ''Roaring Lion'' was recorded for all time. From most of the portraits in this fine book one will gain a more intimate glimpse of the sometimes precious conversations between photographer and subject - big names, little names - a cross section of al mankind.
Karsh: A Fifty-Year Retrospective, by Yousuf Karsh. New York: Graphic Society Book/Little, Brown. 176 black and white duotone and 12 color photographs. $50.