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.

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.

His wife Estrellita, an American with Austrian and Spanish roots, joins the interview. She is a lean woman with a regal face and jet- black hair pulled into a bun. Mrs. Karsh accompanies her husband on many assignments and is evidently an important part of his work. Her eyes brighten as she helps recall, in minute detail, Karsh's visits with a host of notables. Author John Updike looks like what he does. This is a theme that is repeated throughout the exhibit. "We met with him for early morning coffee. And then we had a little lunch. And we had taken photographs in between. But just as I felt we were finished, suddenly he leaned against this door to his book-filled library, and I saw the picture."

Updike's head is slightly cocked, his eyes are dancing, and he offers a slight smile. One hand dangles his glasses, while the other is slipped into his pocket. Karsh captures a quizzical expression that is a pictorial representation of the author's work. Athlete Bob Cousy, one of the greatest guards in the history of professional basketball, is shown with one hand on his hip while the other cradles an inscribed basketball. Mr. Cousy looks as if he is reflecting on his career as player, coach, and commentator. Pianist Rudolf Serkin is shown in a close-up. Karsh says of him simply, "He was lovable." The sweet-faced virtuoso sat for a session in his suite at the Stanhope Hotel across from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The time came to have lunch," Karsh remembers. "I tried to tell him about this phenomenal person by the name of Michael Jackson who had just signed a $100 million contract." Serkin had never heard of him, Karsh says, and could not be convinced that such a rock star could demand such attentio n. Soprano Jessye Norman is regally represented in two majestic photographs. "She's my sweetheart. I fell in love with her voice, and I photographed it," Karsh says. The opera star came to see the exhibition in New York before it was hung several months ago, Karsh says. "She was like a child. She said `I've always dreamt of being a cover girl.' She was thrilled to see her photographs were to be included in the exhibit. But little did she know that she would really be the cover girl - the cover commemorating th e show."

THERE are scores of others, including architect Philip Johnson, who is perched in front of his New York office window that overlooks the massive AT&T building he designed. Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, looking typically cerebral and concerned, is pictured ascending the steps to one of the shelves in his study.

In this exhibit of the nation's finest, whimsical puppeteer Jim Henson shares space with a pensive Sandra Day O'Connor. Singer Marilyn Horne mixes with author Norman Mailer.

Eighty percent of Karsh's portraits are commissioned. Over the years, publications such as Life magazine and Paris Match, as well as institutions such as Buckingham Palace and the White House, have placed steady orders.

Are there any subjects who have refused Karsh's captive eye?

"They may have refused the first time," he says, "but they always decided to go ahead."

* `Karsh: American Legends' is at the Corcoran until April 18.

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