If there is a word to define the portraits of Yousuf Karsh, ‘iconic’ seems to be the most appropriate. In the most literal and religious of ways, Karsh’s photographs are so entirely fused with the premise of iconography, so concerned with worship and distance, that they are icons themselves; sites at which to fall silent and admit our small stature. We come to his images to see celebrity as we imagine it ought to be seen, so thoroughly has Karsh defined what fame looks like. Take his Winston Churchill from 1941, for example, a portrait at least as ubiquitous as the Mona Lisa. As wartime advertisement, modern day patriotic flag, and the face printed on modern five-pound notes, Karsh’s Churchill is absolute; the Churchill of the imagination.
Winston Churchill (1941) by Yousuf Karsh © Estate of Yousuf Karsh. "My portrait of Winston Churchill changed my life. I knew after I had taken it that it was an important picture, but I could hardly have dreamed that it would become one of the most widely reproduced images in the history of photography..." [ Read more ]
It is this devotional feeling that is dominant at ‘Yousuf Karsh: A Private Essence,’ the exhibition currently on at the MMFA. Walking around the three rooms of portraits in black and white, the cumulative sense is that of a glamour-magazine church, or the Academy Awards’ In Memoriam. With a handful of exceptions, every photograph on display here is Karsh’s greatest hits: the proud Mandela and the cocky Bernard Shaw, the beautiful Muhammed Ali and the sombre Mother Theresa. Able to be viewed in any order or variety, the photographs begin in the nineteen-thirties, when Karsh was still a Canadian novice, to his last active, globally recognized years. Arranged neatly in the quietly-lit space they conjure, in the sweeping view, the sense of being starstruck.
It isn’t really any surprise that Karsh learned how to charm and flatter his subjects; that those subjects he craved were the great and the glittered and the grand. An Armenian born on the southeastern edge of Turkey in 1908, and a ‘non-preferred’ migrant to Quebec at sixteen, Karsh was the product of two countries in the process of genocide; of native populations uprooted from their history. Beginning his apprenticeship under his uncle, a portrait photographer of Quebec locals (and from whom he picked up the manners needed to relax white customers) and later training under socialite and fellow Armenian, John H. Garo, Karsh went on to make himself indispensable to his adopted home. ‘Whether he knew it or not,’ Maria Tippett wrote of his early years, ‘he had given Canadians – and the governing class in particular – a flattering image of itself for its own edification.’ Like so many immigrant artists before him, Karsh had to understand how his hosts wanted to be seen. Otherwise, they might begin to see him as they wanted to – an undesired other, refusing to assimilate.
Karsh has been referred to as a modern Rembrandt, but this is surely a superficial comparison. At most, what the two men can be said to share is an intense fascination with the human face. But the results are hardly the same. Rembrandt delivers to us full lives; within the eyes of his subjects, the day they were painted is still there; the passing mood has not been caught but transferred, and so today these 17th century faces still contain the present. This can’t be said of Karsh for the most part. There might be in the portrait of, say, Anna Magnani – the most interesting, and memorable piece exhibited – something of that proximity, that Rembrandt-like reality. But Karsh’s was a completely different project, one in search of unambiguous grandeur; within which there can be no real way of knowing the subject personally. In this way, if he is part of the lineage of any historic portraitist, it is not Rembrandt, but Hans Holbein, another foreign-born portraitist, paying his respects to the court. In Holbein’s Henry VIII is a vision of how we anticipate a king to look: the gold embroidery, the stout, huge body, the opulence of the throne. It is a man asking not to be known or brought close, but to be seen and remembered – the same man found in Karsh’s Churchill.
Portrait of Henry VIII by Hans Holbein (Walker Art Gallery)
Because of this, there is often little to say or add to Karsh’s work. Stopping at each pair of eyes on show at the exhibition, there is an urge to simply nod along – here is Prince Charles, looking as much like a stamp as he always has; there sits Einstein, wise and warm like an old uncle, right where we left him. What is added to many of the pieces throughout the exhibition, is anecdote. Like the magazines they often appeared in, the portraits carry taglines and stories. Solange, Karsh’s first wife and assistant at the studio, began the practice of writing up transcripts of conversation between her husband and his sitters. Which means that now, we can read at the exhibition how Karsh was repulsed by Nabokov, charmed by Brigitte Bardot, and cracked a joke with Nelson Mandela. And we of course get the obligatory account of Karsh pulling the cigar from Churchill’s lips, thus earning the Prime Minister’s respect.
These insights, apocryphal or otherwise, are all entertaining, and prove that Karsh knew exactly how to scratch the public itch for celebrity gossip. But the placement of the gossip, as fun as it is to read, suggests over-explanation. Since many of the portraits are either ingrained in the public memory, or offer little introspection, it can feel as if Karsh is dictating mood. On meeting Hemingway, for example, he recalls expecting ‘to meet in the author a composite of the heroes of his novels. […] Instead, in 1957, at his home Finca Vigla, near Havana, I found a man of peculiar gentleness, the shyest man I ever photographed.’ Why then, if that’s the case, do we find the former in the portrait on show, the stereotype, rather than the surprising latter?
Ernest Hemingway (1957) by Yousuf Karsh © Estate of Yousuf Karsh. "I expected to meet in the author a composite of the heroes of his novels. Instead, in 1957, at his home Finca Vigía, near Havana, I found a man of peculiar gentleness, the shyest man I ever photographed - a man cruelly battered by life, but seemingly invincible..." [ Read more ]
There are variations on the default available, such as Karsh’s work with employees of the Ford Motor Company, a scene almost like a Caravaggio, or his ‘City of Straws’ from 1940, a brief foray into abstract photography. These, however, stand out artificially for the wrong reasons; especially when compared to his documentarian and surrealist peers. What does become evident as you move around the rooms at the MMFA, though, is that Karsh’s most fascinating shots are those where his trademark style – apparently he could be a tyrant in the studio - has been modified, either by his own hand or the sitter’s. This is illustrated beautifully in his Georgia O’Keefe, who faces away from the viewer, cloaked in shadow and bird-like in her seat; in the Fidel Castro, who looms in with his strangely soft eyes and wiry beard. Stand with these for a few moments longer, and you might begin to feel that the distance of fame has, to some degree, been interrupted.
Albert Einstein (1984) by Yousuf Karsh © Estate of Yousuf Karsh. "At Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, I found Einstein a simple, kindly, almost childlike man, too great for any of the postures of eminence..." [ Read more ]
Karsh elevated the glossy magazine shoot to something that feels timeless; indeed, it is hard to know how much he has defined the modern mythology of fame. He exists somewhere between the likes of Holbein and Hollywood’s Silver Age, always appealing to the surface pleasure. In his autobiographical writing, Karsh had a habit of fictionalising his life and omitting details. As Maria Tippett put it, ‘As with his black-and-white portraits, Karsh left some parts of his life in light and other parts in shadow. […] Karsh thus “Karshed” himself.’ In this way, there is in fact nothing private about ‘A Private Essence.’ In the end, Karsh’s life’s work – his biographical oeuvre - was one long career of publicity.