Yousuf Karsh

updated 03/01/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/01/1982 01:00AM

Today, with more Americans possessing cameras than handguns, photography has become the art of the artless. The result: an unending flood of images and impressions that seem to record every smile, every wrinkle, every baby. In the midst of this photographic fecundity, it might seem vain for any portraitist to hope to impose a style that will be admired through the ages. Yet there is one photographer whose study of human physiognomy is, in its own way, every bit as passionate and meticulous as Ansel Adams' views of Yosemite. His last name and his city are his signature: Karsh of Ottawa.

"The human face is the greatest challenge I know," declares Yousuf Karsh, who has been making portraits for 55 of his 73 years. "My life has been a search to record, by means of the camera, the quality of human greatness." Though the vast majority of Karsh's more than 20,000 subjects have been men and women of achievement but no lasting fame, a small but significant number are among the most familiar faces of the 20th century. Among those Karsh has shot, gratis, have been figures as diverse as Albert Einstein and Humphrey Bogart, Nikita Khrushchev and Muhammad Ali, Queen Elizabeth and Sophia Loren.

In January Karsh went to the White House to give Ronald Reagan his turn in a range finder that has been trained on every President since Harry S. Truman. Why the photographer's interest in men and women of power and substance? "I do it for my own immortality," explains Karsh with a laugh. Are the subjects always up to that challenge? Unhappily, no. "Great personalities do not always yield great photographs," Karsh observes. "But if genius is 98 percent ordinary, then it is the task of the man behind the camera to bring out the glorious 2 percent." Though Karsh is never in doubt about whom he wishes to shoot, he is coy when it comes to recruiting. "I would never ask anybody if I could take his portrait," he says. "But I see to it that the personality is invited to be photographed." Needless to say, the bids, tendered by mutual acquaintances, are treasured by those who receive them.

As soon as a shooting date is arranged, Karsh and an assistant tote some 250 pounds of equipment from his studio to the subject's home or office, often traveling thousands of miles. "Being a good mover is almost a prerequisite for being a good photographer," says the man who took Martin Luther King Jr.'s picture in Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church and François Mitterrand's in the French President's cramped garret study. Arriving a day before the session if possible, Karsh sets up his 8x10 Calumet camera and his network of lighting. By then he has done extensive research on his subject so that he can relax him during the shooting with an informed line of patter. When all is ready, Karsh hopes to begin feeling butterflies. "If I lose sleep the night before," he says, "the shooting is usually going to be good."

Whether the actual session lasts 30 seconds, as it did with Charles de Gaulle, or two days, as with Albert Schweitzer and Pablo Casals, Karsh says his technique is to generate such rapport that the subject lowers his guard. Sometimes Karsh achieves the effect he wants through guile. When FDR's curmudgeonly Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, showed up in a rare sunny mood back in 1944, the requisite sobriety was obtained by posing an impertinent political question. But even Karsh's guile has been known to misfire. Primed with information about Ernest Hemingway's prodigal drinking habits, the photographer tried to curry favor at an early-morning session with Papa by requesting one of the author's beloved daiquiris. Hemingway was aghast. "Good God!" he bellowed. "At this hour?"

Though Karsh employs assistants, he insists on developing his own film and always makes the first master print. "Photographs I don't like never see the light of day," he says. Those that do are characterized by dramatic lighting, subtlety of tone and a suggestion of thoughtfulness on the part of the subject. A Karsh retrospective in Washington last fall was praised by reviewers. "Karsh transforms the human face into legends," wrote one. Individual prints were sold for prices ranging from $800 to $1,800. Some critics call his portraits idealized and predictable, a characterization with which Karsh is impatient. "I have no preconceived notions of what any final portrait will be," he insists. "In retrospect, you can talk about the picture objectively. But when you are actually taking the picture, it is the two of us interacting. The photographer must intuitively see and sense the past, present and future of the subject."

Karsh's own past began in Mardin, a trading town in what is now Turkey. His Armenian Christian family was persecuted by the Turks but succeeded in emigrating to Syria in 1922. When he was 17, Yousuf, who wanted to be a doctor, was sent to live with his Uncle Nakash in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Instead of taking up medicine, the boy went to work for Nakash in his photo studio. One day, using a box Brownie, Yousuf photographed a landscape, and he sent the print to a friend as a Christmas card. The friend entered it in a photography contest. Karsh won first prize—and $50 in gold. Soon afterward Nakash arranged for his nephew to apprentice with a fellow Armenian, John Garo, then an established Boston portraitist. "My job was mixing chemicals for photography," Karsh recalls. "But we had Prohibition then, so after hours I mixed bootleg alcohol and drugstore flavors into drinks. For Arthur Fiedler it was always a 'hypo,' that being our code name for bourbon." In addition to bartending, Karsh learned from Garo the arts of natural lighting and composition and the knack for "enchanting the subject to such an extent that the person was unaware he was being photographed."

After three years with Garo, Yousuf returned to his uncle. Then, at 24, he borrowed $150 and set up his own shop in Ottawa. The early years were lean, and Karsh kept body and soul together by shooting passport snapshots and anything else that came his way. Meanwhile he had met Solange Gauthier, an actress and French translator. She is remembered by Karsh as "my inspiration, my business manager, my chief reinforcement." Through her involvement in the theater she also introduced Karsh to the photographic possibilities of artificial lighting. "Mood effects could be created, selected, modified," he says. "I was thrilled with this new method of expression."

By the time Yousuf and Solange married in 1939, Karsh was already photographing prominent Canadians. But it was his classic portrait of a belligerent Winston Churchill, taken during the British Prime Minister's visit to Ottawa during World War II, that brought him assignments all over the world. For two decades the photographer prospered. Then, in 1959, he suffered a heart attack. He recovered, but 18 months later Solange died of cancer. "I can still cry," he says simply, but he is no longer alone. In 1962 Karsh was photographing a prominent physician in Chicago when he met Estrellita Nachbar, a medical writer 21 years his junior; she became his second wife in a ceremony performed by Karsh's friend, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Today the couple live in Ottawa's Chateau Laurier, where Karsh has his studio. He keeps a summer home, Little Wings, outside Ottawa and maintains an apartment and studio in Manhattan. They have no children.

To finance his peripatetic life, Karsh charges $5,000 per portrait—and has a six-month waiting list. Still, Karsh takes no assignment for granted. When he journeyed to the White House to photograph Ronald Reagan, he hoped to capture the steely look of presidential resolve. He opened the session obliquely, as always, by complimenting the President on a pair of Spanish saddles. "They are as beautiful as the work of Benvenuto Cellini." No response. "Have you read Cellini's autobiography?" The President hadn't. Karsh, who kept shooting, changed tack. Did Reagan think that Eisenhower had been perhaps too fine a soldier to make a great President? Reagan wasn't talking. Is war too serious to be left to the generals? The President stayed mute, but his gaze seemed to harden. "The very expression I wanted," says Karsh. Click. The session was over.

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