Interview with Karsh

Interview with Karsh by Peter Adams.

It should be the aim of every photographer to make a single exposure that shows everything about the subject. I have been told that my portrait of Churchill is an example of this. - Yousuf Karsh, Ottawa, 1992

Karsh’s studio and apartment were located in the Château Laurier Hotel, in Ottawa - a French, chateauesque-style gothic monstrosity, built in 1884. Heavily decorated with hand-moulded plaster, stuffed animal heads and Tiffany stained-glass stained windows, the sumptuous rooms were connected by wide corridors with hideous carpet and, punctuated here and there, by alternating alabaster busts of dearly departed generals on faux mahogany plinths, and tired looking pots of aspidistras and palms.

Where the hell did they put Armenia anyway? I'd heard of it, of course. Indeed, I knew several people who were born there - but I hadn't a clue where it was. If you are honest, I suspect many of you probably don't know either. 

Armenia (I discovered) is a tiny country - about one tenth the size of the State of Victoria - sandwiched between four others: Iran to the south, Turkey to the west, Georgia to the north and Azerbaijan to the east. 

Any the wiser?

When Yousuf Karsh was sixteen years old, he became an immigrant - these days he would be referred to as one of those unfashionable asylum seekers - when his father sent him away from Armenia, to the relative safety of the United States.  

The year was 1924.  

By 1915 the Turkish Government had invented a great new game called Genocide. The object of the game was to annihilate the entire population of Armenia. By 1922 they had knocked-off about one and a half million. One and a half million lives was roughly one third of the population of the country. 

Even today, seventy-eight years later, the Turks still deny that any of this took place. In the words of Yousuf Karsh: " It's an irony that Mardin - where I was born and which has been described as the original Garden of Eden, with its succulent fruits and its tiers of rising buildings, was the scene of so many Turkish atrocities. 

Cruelty and torture were everywhere. 

One of my early memories was carrying food parcels to my two beloved uncles who had been torn from their homes by the Turks and cast into prison - for no reason other than they were Armenian. One uncle was a talented Calligrapher who used to illuminate the Koran and the Bible. Later they were both thrown down a well and left to perish. There are many similar stories.  I remember seeing pictures of beheaded intellectuals and Armenian leaders - these were the people the 'Young Turks' went after first -them and starving children".

I found it hard to connect the words of the dapper little man sitting in front of me - a man who had rubbed shoulders with and photographed the rich and famous, the politicians, and personalities from the worlds of acting and the arts for the past sixty years - with his disastrous past.

"You know, running water is still a miracle to me.  In Armenia, my mother had to wait in line for hours, every day, just to fill one small bucket.  She seemed tireless. Her generosity. Her strength. Her hope was a lesson to all of us. I would come home from school with my forehead bleeding, because I had been stoned by Turkish boys who had tried to take away my marbles. My mother would take me in her arms and say 'My son, they don't know what they are doing … and, if you must carry stones and retaliate tomorrow, just be sure you miss'."

I looked around me at the room where we sat.  

Built in 1884 and named after the first French speaking Premier of Canada, the Château Laurier where Karsh lived and worked reminded me of a pretentious chateau on the Rhine. Heavily ornate. Sumptuous rooms connected by wide corridors. Hideous carpet punctuated here and there by alternating busts in white marble on mahogany plinths and tired looking pots of aspidistra and palms - you would expect to encounter the obligatory suit of armour around a corner at any moment.

Diminutive and pugnacious, domineering and opinionated, quick movements belying his age  "I'm 83 in December!" Karsh immediately started organising me. How and where he wished to be photographed, what he should wear, which hat - he was already wearing a beautifully tailored suit and tie. "The light is beautiful at the moment! We should talk as we walk because if you leave it too late, it won't be as good! And…" pointing to the microphone I tried to clip to his lapel "… under no circumstances will I talk into that tape recorder".

I pleaded. I cajoled. How could I be accurate with his words without recording them? "No! You can get everything you need from 'the book'. Make notes. I'll talk slowly" Ever since the Father of Relativity taught him to distrust tape recorders in the early 50's, he has never permitted one in his presence.  There was no point in arguing! I started making notes and immediately bought The Book shoved at me by his secretary for $45 US.

"We will do the shot in ten minutes outside Parliament House. This tie OK?  Do you like this hat?" He held up battered felt Trilby. "Or this one?" This time a natty black one. He tried on both, all the while checking the results in a mirror. He made the decision. Natty was better. 

"It's three degrees outside. The final touch was a hideous long coat made from dead animals. " I'll give you a fifteen-minute start and follow you - I don't want to stand around while you decide what you want me to do". To his assistant: "Take him to the archway - there's a view of Parliament House through the archway. We'll do the shot there." 

The last thing I needed was another picture of a photographer standing in an archway. But I said nothing.

Karsh's life and departure from Armenia, was a little different from the trappings that now surrounded him. His father could neither read nor write, but had "exquisite taste and travelled to distant lands buying rare and beautiful things - furniture, rugs and spices". His mother was an educated woman and extremely well read "which was unusual in Armenia at that time". 

"In 1922, our family was allowed to flee. We had to leave everything behind - we were allowed to take nothing with us - no baggage, only our lives. We had to flee on foot. We weren't allowed to travel by train - which would have taken only two days. We journeyed with a Bedouin caravan.  The journey took a month. My parents lost every valuable they had managed to save paying off people along the way. My father's last silver coin went to rescue me after I was caught foolishly making a sketch of pile of human sculls - the last bitter landmark of my country."

Leaving Karsh in his studio, we set off up the hill.

The entrance driveway to Parliament House in Ottawa is designed like an inverted 'U', with buildings on three sides and a large open lawn in the middle. It was February and the lawn was covered in snow. Not a footprint in sight.

I hate pre-conceiving images, but I thought it would be terrific if the old man's footsteps appeared in the top left hand corner of my picture and lead towards my camera - about 100 yards away. The old man arrived. He agreed. "But I have the wrong shoes!" This to Jerry Fielder, his long-suffering assistant. "I need my boots - my black leather boots. Go back to the studio and fetch them. Meanwhile he can photograph me here under this archway." 

The bloody archway again! Controlling, always controlling.

I was determined not to photograph Karsh under his favourite arch.  At that moment, two spunky women walked past and he started being cheeky to them.  He turned away from me to talk to them. Now in profile to me, he momentarily forgot all about me. A watched them pass out of sight. He suddenly seemed small and insignificant and lost in thought.

It's extraordinary what one notices in moments such as these. I remember thinking how his huge nose was and how it seemed to have the same texture as his coat - all lumpy and shapeless. I tilted the camera up to reinforce his sensation of insignificance and make the concrete around him more overpowering. I have no idea what he was musing about. He never said. The moment lasted only moment, but long enough to make a few exposures before he turned back to me and started to tell me what to do again.

There were three major influences in the life of Karsh. 

The first was his mother who instilled in him the value of tolerance and determination. Perhaps Karsh's instinctive desire to show human greatness in terms of social contribution - rather than destruction - was a way of restoring a balance to the world of his early childhood. His mother's philosophy of "always turn the other cheek" would certainly have found fertile ground in the mind of the young Karsh.

The second influence was his mentor and fellow Armenian, John H. Garo, a portrait photographer in Boston. "Garo was a wise counsellor. He encouraged me to attend evening classes in art and to study the work of the great masters, especially Rembrandt and Velásquez.  I never learned how to draw or paint but I did absorb a fair amount about lighting, composition and design".

Karsh hated being photographed. 

He was stiff and awkward in front of the camera. I moved him about as much as I dared, but there was no subtlety of movement and he was as stubborn as an ancient mule. I wondered if this was simply the action of an 'Old Chooker', or was it something to do with his sudden loss of being 'in control'. 

He kept talking. I kept listening and shooting while we waited for his boots to arrive.

"Garo taught me to see. And to remember what I saw. He worked only with available light and as you may know, the Boston weather is often unpredictable, so we would stop long before dusk. Then Garo's studio would became a meeting place for gatherings of his artist friends - men and women of great talent. 

During these days of Prohibition, my extracurricular activities included acting as bartender for the hospitality that freely flowed in Garo's studio. Innocent-looking paint cans were delivered under the guise of darkroom chemistry but really containing a concoction of alcoholic drinks. 'Nitric acid' for Arthur Fiedler (conductor of the Boston Pops), 'Hypo' for Serge Koussevitzky (founder of the Tanglewood Festival) and so forth.

Even as a young man I was aware that the passing parade of personalities from the world of music and the arts in Garo's salon, were my university."

Perhaps as a result of these experiences, Karsh determined to devote his career to photographing the rich and famous who had made their mark on the world.

His boots arrived. 

Karsh started walking through the snow while I waited by the camera. As he walked the snow got deeper and deeper and Karsh sank lower and lower until the snow was up above his knees. He came to a grinding halt, stuck in the middle of the lawn. The risk of facing a charge of manslaughter was getting to great. I stopped his progress, Jerry rescued him and we started back to the studio.

The third major influence on Karsh's life, and the one that probably determined his distinctive repetitive photographic style, was his love of the theatre. In the early days in Ottawa, Karsh had few friends and he welcomed an invitation to join the Ottawa Little Theatre, an enthusiastic group of amateur players. 

The experience of photographing actors with artificial light overwhelmed me. Working with daylight in Garo's studio one had to wait - often for hours - for the light to be right. In this new situation, moods could be created, modified, intensified. A whole new world was opened to me.

It was perhaps this influence of 'stage lighting' that has so greatly determined Karsh's photographic style. Many of his best loved images appear to have been made in his studio, but in fact were made on location "My portable lights gave me the freedom to work away from Ottawa. My wife and I travel extensively - I work away from home for nine months of the year. Any room in the world where I can set up my lights and camera - from Buckingham Palace to a Zulu kraal - becomes my studio".

Karsh died in a Boston hospital on July 13th, 2002. He was 93. 

Karsh left the world with an astounding record of the rich and famous for the past 60 years - of this there is no question. His was a way of making pictures that flattered the subject - so they felt comfortable posing for him. The resulting portraits have variously been described as Victorian, pictorial, formal even old fashioned. I prefer to describe them as classical. 

After the success of his1941 portrait of Churchill, Karsh never had a shortage of subjects - indeed, being photographed by him became - as one critic has described it - 'a badge of honour'. Being photographed by Karsh was the entry fee to an exclusive club - where your credentials were endorsed by the other great and famous who had already been before his lens. A Karsh portrait became, if you like, the final accolade of recognition from the world stage. 

But we now live in an unflattering world filled with fear and exaggerated rhetoric.
There are now a different generation of photographers who have discovered that it's OK to question the platitudes of politicians. It's OK to question that which was once held in reverence. It's OK to expose the posturing and excesses of religious leaders. 

Viewed in today's sceptical light, Karsh's work poses a few questions. These can only be answered on an individual basis - from our personal viewpoint and backgrounds as students of photography.

Is Karsh's legacy to world really a collection of GREAT photographs? 

One definition of a portrait is that it should give some insight into the person' personality and life and character. In all honesty, what can we really tell about the people in Karsh's portraits that we didn't already know about them from the media and films and so forth? 

Would it be more true to say that the collection is a great record of the world's celebrities? Are they really great photographs?

If we already think we know the people he photographed, if we already love them (or hate them), aren't we simply being made to feel comfortable by having our egos gently stroked because we have discovered another who feels the same as us?  When we look at his portraits, what are we judging? The personalities?  His photography,? Or ourselves?

In 1992 Karsh told me

It should be the aim of every photographer to make a single exposure that shows everything about the subject
adding after a pause, "I have been told that my portrait of Churchill is an example of this". 

I find it difficult to accept that any single image can come close to achieving this, even his most famous image. I prefer instead the words of another great American portrait photographer, Arnold Newman, who in the same year said: "I am convinced that any photographic attempt to show the complete man is nonsense. We can only show, as best we can, what the outer man reveals. The inner man is seldom revealed to anyone, sometimes not even the man himself.”