Photo Corners

A   S C R A P B O O K   O F   S O L U T I O N S   F O R   T H E   P H O T O G R A P H E R

Enhancing the enjoyment of taking pictures with news that matters, features that entertain and images that delight. Published frequently.

Matinee: 'Yousef Karsh' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

19 April 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the twenty-ninth in our series of Saturday matinees today: Connie Martinson's interview with Yousef Karsh from the Claremont Colleges Digital Library.

The half-hour interview was broadcast in 1988 as part of the public television series Connie Martinson Talks Books on the publication of Karsh: A Fifty-Year Retrospective. The current edition of the book is Karsh: A Sixty Year Retrospective. Karsh died in 2002.

(If you have trouble viewing the video from the Claremont server, it's also available in three parts from YouTube: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.)

Karsh talks about his emigration as a boy to Canada from Armenia after the World War I massacre of the Armenians by the Turks.

The Armenian genocide is the subject of Armenian Golgotha by Grigoris Balakian, who on April 24, 1915 was arrested along with some 250 other leaders of Constantinople's Armenian community and lived to tell an unforgettable story.

Karsh stayed with an uncle, hoping to study medicine but he ended up becoming a photographer. "And I'm very happy about it," he added.

He spent three years as an apprentice to the natural light photographer John Garo, whose portrait he took in 1931. During that time he met many important artists and scientists who came in the afternoon to visit Garo (for the gin Karsh mixed up in the bathtub during Prohibition). Garo also sent him to soak up fine art exhibits at the Boston Public Library across the street from the studio.

Karsh is famous for his portraits of the most famous people of his time. But not merely because he photographed the famous. He photographed the famous famously.

His approach started with preparation. To understand Ernest Hemingway, he explains, he felt he had to do a little homework, drinking a few cocktails. Unfortunately the bar was under seige but Karsh sat on the floor beneath the bullets and had a daiquiri, Hemingway's favorite cocktail at the time. When he met Hemingway the next day, the author was impressed by the young man who asked for a daiquiri so early in the day.

"Excessive preparation can boomerang," he warns young photographers. But he came away with several portraits of Hemingway, reproduced in the book.

There are also several of Winston Churchill, the subject that made Karsh himself famous. Karsh always preferred to shoot on location, rather than in his studio. He shot his famous portraits of the British bulldog just after Pearl Harbor in Ottawa and then in Washington, D.C.

If his subjects were larger than life, his gear was not small either. He made his photos with an 8x10 large format camera with strobes when he was in Europe but preferred tungsten floods and spots. Simply a matter of reliable electrical service, he explains.

Talk about capturing someone's soul in a picture, Martinson prompts him. How do you do it?

He claims he has no intelligent answer to the question but he cites his rapport with his subjects. It's no accident. He studied his subjects before he ever set up his equipment and engaged them in conversation before he ever opened the shutter. And he did not put anything away in a hurry. There was often one more shot just for the sitter.

That not only made the photographs wonderful but it makes for some entertaining stories, too.

She asks him if he cropped his portrait of the dancer Rudolph Nureyev or was it captured that way in the camera? He answers that he gives no special weight to not cropping or cropping an image, the thing that matters is not the first draft but the final image.

The book includes images from a project called On Assignment. that are not formal portraits but images of ordinary people. They show a universal nobility, he says, telling the story behind two of them.

She asks about the genocide of Armenians when he was a boy and if he has ever photographed anything that addressed that.

He recalls his mother's advice when he told her he wanted to retaliate against some boys who had thrown stones at him when he wouldn't empty his pockets for them. He wanted to thrown stones back at them.

"Do you really think they know what they're doing?" If you have to retaliate, she told him, "I hope you miss." Don't stoop to their level. Instead she encouraged him to accomplish more, he says, by becoming an example of what is good.

The interview concludes with the photo on the back cover: a self-portrait. He wants, he said, to set a good example for amateur photographers, he smiles.

BackBack to Photo Corners