Portrait of a portraitist—the life of Yousuf Karsh

A biography of the photographer of the famous, who believed in the essential goodness of his subjects

For Yousuf Karsh, it all began with The Roaring Lion. That is the name that has become attached to the famous 1941 portrait of the defiant Winston Churchill taken just after delivering one of his dramatic speeches to the Canadian Parliament. And even though, as Maria Tippett relates in her excellent biography, Karsh at first preferred the second exposure showing the smiling, confident British Prime Minister, this was the portrait that caught the imagination first of editors and then the public

at large.

Before that momentous exposure, Karsh was a young, modestly successful portrait photographer in Ottawa who through his skills and impeccable manners had ingratiated himself to a few influential politicians, but still survived on portraying ordinary sitters. As an Armenian immigrant who had come to Canada in 1924 as a teenager to escape the genocide in his hometown of Mardin, Turkey, he apprenticed first with his photographer uncle and then with John Garo in Boston. Steeped in tradition of past masters, he knew full well that their success and his depended on satisfying the sitter. This meant either flattering an ego or devising a creative way in which a positive aspect of an individual emerged as a pleasant surprise to everyone concerned. We tend to forget that in the 20th century so many published portraits were made for editorial reasons by photographers who did not care if the sitters were pleased.

If Karsh’s portraits now look old-fashioned to contemporary eyes, it is because he was arguably the last of his type. His lineage might be traced back through Nadar, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Anthony van Dyck. Robert Hughes clarified this historical situation when he wrote about Van Dyck: “…portraiture is a diplomatic agreement between truth and etiquette, between private opinion and public mask. Since the Self is the sacred cow of today’s culture we are apt to find this less ‘interesting’ than fictions of interrogation and disclosure. But that is our problem not Van Dyck’s. It is also, of course, why we have no formal portraiture of any value.” Except, we might claim in the work of Yousuf Karsh.

Ms Tippett does not analyse the development of Karsh’s style. Rather her goal is to guide the reader through the life of an artist who, as an admitted hero worshipper, wanted to record the faces of destiny that led us out of World War II, portray people who influenced the peace, or as Popular Photography phrased it in November 1950: “Help peoples of the world to a better knowledge of each other.” She does her best to keep these lofty goals from making the photographer seem too opaque and saintly by balancing incidents of his equilibrium with his temper or his insularity with his courteousness.

Karsh was one of the very few major photographic figures whose manner as well as his work derived from his belief in goodness. That was not unusual through the 1940s, but as the 1950s progressed, the idea began to diminish in the progressive arts with the rise of cynicism, doubt, and irony. After World War II in North America, the darker side of the imagination, whether it was in film noir or Beat poetry, found voice in exploring new freedoms that popular imagination, alternative lifestyles, or a sense of individual liberties allowed. Karsh’s steadfast course through these times of change and the rise of the counter culture brought him praise and financial rewards from those in power, but after decades it also brought him criticism from those who felt experimentation and innovation were the ways art should be judged. Thus, Barry Callaghan wrote in the Toronto Telegram in 1967 complaining that there was “a sameness about all Karsh’s work, a dreadful odour of piety and respectability”.

Remembering that Karsh was not an editorial photographer or a documentarian with a pronounced political or personal bias and that he always had a partner in his sitter, with whom he wanted to create a collaborative image, his kindness towards his subject caused him to be more cautious in his own personal aesthetic innovations. He also felt that he had to maintain a certain stylistic stability to satisfy his respect for tradition and maintain the look that had made him famous. That fact and the character that accompanied it are what Ms Tippett explains so well and what are likely to be celebrated rather than criticised in the decades ahead.

David Travis

Chairman and Curator of Photography

The Art Institute of Chicago

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