There is a brief moment,” Yousuf Karsh once said, “when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit may be reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the elusive ‘moment of truth’.” Throughout his prolific career, Karsh and his camera have stood before statesmen, movie stars, artists and Popes. More often than not, he has captured that elusive moment, establishing himself as one of the world’s premier portrait photographers.
A warm, effusive man filled with fascinating stories about his famed subjects, Karsh will turn 75 this month. He has much to celebrate. Karsh, a 50-year retrospective of his work containing some 200 portraits, has just been published by Little, Brown. In conjunction with the book, a photographic exhibit is traveling around the country.
The Armenian-born Karsh fled his country in 1922 during the Turkish massacres and at age 16 moved to Canada to live with his uncle George Nakash, a photographer. After Nakash gave his nephew a camera as a gift, Karsh became hooked on taking pictures. Later, while apprenticing with Boston portraitist John Garo, Karsh knew he wanted to photograph “those men and women who leave their mark on the world.” Karsh has captured the essence of such figures as Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Laurence Olivier, Helen Keller, Winston Churchill and Pablo Picasso.
Karsh lives with his second wife, Estrellita Nachbar, in Ottawa, where he is deemed one of Canada’s first citizens. He considers himself truly lucky, as do his subjects. For the past 20 years Karsh has photographed the National Poster Child for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. When this year’s child, Christopher Rush, went to the White House and presented his photograph to the President, Reagan looked at the picture and said, “Oh, you know, Mr. Karsh has photographed me, too.”
Photographer Yousuf Karsh’s book contains several studies of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, but he favors this portrait taken in natural light at the entranceway of her New Mexico home. O’Keeffe, 96, and the widow of pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz, was quite accustomed to being the camera’s subject. Karsh found her both photogenic and understanding. “She knows,” he says, “what a photographer’s task is.”
Karsh believes “the happy accident gives the best results.” Nureyev was a guest artist with the National Ballet of Canada and was starring in Valentino when Karsh quipped, “Let’s look at those sensuous lips of yours.” With a twinkle in his eye, the dancer mischievously covered his mouth, resulting in the unexpected and intriguing photograph.
It was April in Moscow and all of Khrushchev’s fur coats were in mothballs. But Karsh sensed the rotund figure would be more impressive wrapped in fur. After making some formal portraits he told the interpreter, “I am now addressing myself to the chairman of the USSR. I would like the biggest fur coat in Russia possible.” Smiling, Khrushchev replied, “Why not?”
Karsh had spent several hours snapping portraits of Peter Lorre and they had just sat down for an early supper in the actor’s home. “As Lorre was talking I saw the lamp near him,” remembers Karsh. “I pushed my food aside and put the lamp in front of his face to capture the menacing mood of his roles. The setup was just a last thought before I left.”
“I love this picture and so did Casals. He was playing Bach,” recalls Karsh. “He always asked me, ‘What prompted you to do it?’ and I said I wish I could have such inspiration more often.” Years later when the photograph was on exhibit, an elderly gentleman would visit the picture daily, standing in front of it endlessly. When the curator finally asked him why, the man replied, “Hush, young man, hush—can’t you see I am listening to the music?”