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Yousuf Karsh, master photographer of the 20th century

A Brief Biography

Leaving Armenia – Arriving in Canada

On the stormy New Year’s Eve of 1925, the liner Versailles reached Halifax from Beirut. After a voyage of twenty-nine days, her most excited passenger in the steerage class must have been a seventeen-year-old Armenian boy who spoke little French, and less English. I was that boy.

My first glimpse of the New World on a steely cold, sunny winter day was the Halifax wharf, covered with snow. I could not yet begin to imagine the infinite promise of this new land. For the moment, it was enough to find myself safe, the massacres, torture, and heartbreak of Armenia behind me. I had no money and little schooling, but I had an uncle, my mother’s brother, who was waiting for me and recognized me from a crude family snapshot as I stepped from the gangplank. George Nakash, whom I had not seen before, sponsored me as an immigrant, guaranteed that I would not be a “public charge,” and traveled all the way from his home in Sherbrooke, Quebec, for our meeting — the first of his many great kindnesses.

We went up from the dock to the station in a taxi, the likes of which I had never seen — a sleigh-taxi drawn by horses. The bells on their harnesses never stopped jingling; the bells of the city rang joyously to mark a new year. The sparkling decorations on the windows of shops and houses, the laughing crowds — for me it was an unbelievable fantasy come true. On the two-day journey to my uncle’s home, I marveled at the vast distances. The train stalled in a deep snowdrift; we ran out of food; this situation, at least, was no novelty for me.

I was born in Mardin, Armenia, on December 23, 1908, of Armenian parents. My father could neither read nor write, but had exquisite taste. He traveled to distant lands to buy and sell rare and beautiful things — furniture, rugs, spices. My mother was an educated woman, a rarity in those days, and was extremely well read, particularly in her beloved Bible. Of their three living children, I was the eldest. My brothers Malak and Jamil, today in Canada and the United States, were born in Armenia. My youngest brother, Salim, born later in Aleppo, Syria, alone escaped the persecution soon to reach its climax in our birthplace.

It was the bitterest of ironies that Mardin, whose tiers of rising buildings were said to resemble the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and whose succulent fruits convinced its inhabitants it was the original Garden of Eden, should have been the scene of the Turkish atrocities against the Armenians in 1915. Cruelty and torture were everywhere; nevertheless, life had to go on — albeit fearfully — all the while. Ruthless and hideous persecution and illness form part of my earliest memories: taking food parcels to two beloved uncles torn from their homes, cast into prison for no reason, and later thrown alive into a well to perish; the severe typhus epidemic in which my sister died, in spite of my mother’s gentle nursing. My recollections of those days comprise a strange mixture of blood and beauty, of persecution and peace.

I remember finding brief solace in my young cousin relating her Thousand and One Nights tales of fantastic ships and voyages and faraway people, and always, solace in the example of my mother, who taught me not to hate, even as the oppression continued.

One day, I returned from school, my forehead bleeding. I had been stoned by Turkish boys who tried to take away my only playthings, a few marbles. “Wait,” I told my mother defiantly, “from now on I am the one who will carry stones.” My mother took me in her arms and said, “My son, they do not know what they are doing. However, if you must retaliate — be sure you miss!”

My mother’s generosity, strength, and hope sustained our family. She took into our home a young Armenian girl, shared our few morsels of food with her, and encouraged her to use her hands instead of her eyes, which had been cruelly mutilated. My mother herself seemed tireless. She had to go every day to the distant mountain spring which was the one source of water for the whole community. Allowed only one small pail, she would wait patiently in line for hours to get enough water for her children. Running water, to me, is still a great blessing.

In 1922, our family was allowed to flee. We had to leave our doors open — with us we took no baggage, only our lives. And we had to flee on foot. During our month-long journey with a Bedouin and Kurdish caravan, which would have taken only two days by the forbidden train, my parents lost every valuable they had managed to save. My father’s last silver coin went to rescue me after I was caught foolishly making a sketch of piled-up human bones and skulls, the last bitter landmark of my country.

In the safety of Aleppo, Syria, my father painstakingly tried to rebuild our lives. Only those who have seen their savings and possessions of a lifetime destroyed can understand how great were the spiritual resources upon which my father must have drawn. Despite the continual struggle, day after day, he somehow found the means to send me to my Uncle Nakash, and to a continent then to me no more than a vague space on a schoolboy’s map.

Uncle Nakash was a photographer of established reputation, still a bachelor when I went to live with him, and a man of generous heart. If my first day at Sherbrooke High School proved a dilemma for the teachers—in what grade did one place a seventeen-year-old Armenian boy who spoke no English, who wanted to be a doctor, and who came armed only with good manners? — the school was for me a haven where I found my first friends. They not only played with me instead of stoning me, but allowed me to keep the marbles I had won. My formal education was over almost before it began, but the warmth of my reception made me love my adopted land.

The Early Years – Garo

In the summer of 1926, I went to work for Uncle Nakash at his studio, burying my original desire to study medicine. While at first I did not realize it, everything connected with the art of photography captivated my interest and energy — it was to be not only my livelihood but my continuing passion. I roamed the fields and woods around Sherbrooke every weekend with a small camera, one of my uncle’s many gifts. I developed the pictures myself and showed them to him for criticism. I am sure they had no merit, but I was learning, and Uncle Nakash was a valuable and patient critic.

It was with this camera that I scored my first photographic success. I photographed a landscape with children playing and gave it to a classmate as a Christmas gift. Secretly, he entered it in a contest. To my amazement, it won first prize, the then munificent sum of fifty dollars. I gave ten dollars to my friend and happily sent the rest to my parents in Aleppo, the first money I could send to them.

Shortly afterward my uncle arranged my apprenticeship with his friend John H. Garo of Boston, a fellow Armenian, who was recognized as the outstanding portraitist in the eastern states. Garo was a wise counsellor; he encouraged me to attend evening classes in art and to study the work of the great masters, especially Rembrandt and Velázquez. Although I never learned to paint, or to make even a fair drawing, I learned about lighting, design, and composition. At the Public Library, which was my other home in Boston, I became a voracious reader in the humanities and began to appreciate the greater dimensions of photography.

It was Garo, who bore a physical resemblance to Mark Twain but without the humorist’s flamboyance, who made a lifelong impression on me. Originally, I had been sent to Boston for six months, but Garo took so kindly to me and was so encouraging that, in the end, I spent a total of three years with him. In Garo’s studio, I learned many of the technical processes used by photographic artists at that time, among them platinum printing, and pigment or gum arabic, carbon oil and bromoil. The complicated procedures demanded great skill, intuitive judgment, discipline and patience. My first gum arabic print took me eighteen days; it had to be sensitized, coated, and resensitized many times. Learning these processes made me strive for perfection; time meant nothing, and only the final result counted.

But Garo taught me something more important than technique alone — Garo taught me to see, and to remember what I saw. He also prepared me to think for myself and evolve my own distinctive interpretations. “Understand clearly what you are seeking to achieve,” he would say, “and when it is there, record it. Art is never fortuitous.” When he had made six glass plates of a person, there had been much sharing of truth between the photographer and his subject.

An air of cultured informality surrounded Garo. Since sittings in the studio were by available light, we stopped long before dusk. That hour was the beginning of many a happy and often spontaneous gathering of his artist friends — men and women of great talent — who would come to be with Garo and each other. During those days of Prohibition, my extracurricular activities included acting as bartender for the hospitality that flowed, delivered to the studio in innocent-looking paint cans. As mixer of concoctions of “nitric acid” for Arthur Fielder, or “hypo” for Serge Koussevitzky, I shared in wonderful encounters with some of the great personalities in the world of music, letters, the theater, and the opera of the 1920s. Even as a young man, I was aware that these glorious afternoons and evenings in Garo’s salon were my university. There I set my heart on photographing those men and women who leave their mark on the world.

Garo’s health broke and he died in 1939, when I was still struggling with my own first independent studio in Ottawa, and I grieved and felt remorse that I could not be with him at the end. Those last months impressed me with what I have come to hold as a general truth: It is rarely possible to repay directly those who have rendered us great personal kindnesses. But it is also futile to rationalize and say that the time for sacrifice, to repay just moral debts, is past — for I do not believe that time ever passes. Nature does not often collaborate with men to permit simple repayment, whether the debt is from son to father, from soldier to comrade, or from pupil to master. We may never be able to pay directly for the gifts of true friendship — but pay we must, even though we make our payment to someone who owes us nothing, in some other place and at some other time.

The Early Years – Ottawa

I left Boston in 1931. My interest lay in the personalities that influenced all our lives, rather than merely in portraiture. Fostered by Garo’s teachings, I was yearning for adventure, to express myself, to experiment in photography. With all my possessions packed in two suitcases, I moved to Ottawa. In the capital of Canada, a crossroads of world travel, I hoped I would have the opportunity to photograph its leading figures and many foreign international visitors. I had a modest studio; the furniture was mostly orange crates covered — tastefully, I thought — with monk’s cloth, and if I occasionally found myself borrowing back my secretary’s salary of $17.00 a week to pay the rent, I was still convinced, with the resilience of youth, that I had made the right choice.

Within a short time I was fortunate to meet B. K. Sandwell, the learned editor of the prestigious and elegantly illustrated periodical Saturday Night; a civilized, warm attachment grew up between us. Accompanying Sandwell’s political and social comments, my photographs were reproduced for the first time in his magazine.

While my career seemed to be well launched, I had few friends in Ottawa during those early months, and I welcomed an invitation to join the Ottawa Little Theatre, an enthusiastic group of amateur players. The casual invitation was to have lasting effects on my life and career. The experience of photographing actors on the stage with stage lighting was exhilarating. The unlimited possibilities of artificial light overwhelmed me. Working with daylight in Garo’s studio one had to wait — often for hours — for the light to be right. In this new situation, instructions about lighting effects were given by the director; he could command the lighting to do what he wished. Moods could be created, selected, modified, intensified. I was thrilled by this means of expression, this method of interpreting life; a new world was opened to me.

One of the leading actors at the Little Theatre was Lord Duncannon, the handsome twenty-one-year-old son of the then Governor General, Lord Bessborough, and Lady Bessborough, who were themselves avidly interested in stage production and had a miniature theater in their own castle in Scotland. Lord Duncannon prevailed upon his parents to sit for me, and soon the Governor General, in full regalia with sword and decorations, accompanied by his elegantly gowned, statuesque French wife, was climbing the steps to my studio. In my eagerness and delight I became too excited. My mistakes in English frustrated me; I did not even focus the camera correctly; not surprisingly, this first photographic attempt was disastrous. But the Bessboroughs proved most understanding of a nervous young photographer’s feelings and consented to sit for me again; this time my portraits were a great success and appeared in the Illustrated London News, and the Tatler, the Sketch, and many newspapers across Canada.

Something more important than my introduction to incandescent lighting came out of the Little Theatre. My first night there I was ushered into the dressing room of the leading lady, the spirited and independent Solange Gauthier, from Tours, France. From our marriage some years later, to her death in 1960, she was a source of encouragement, understanding, and inspiration. In those early days, convinced that I had some talent, she was interested in helping me, and often did, after her own day’s work as a technical translator in the field of metallurgy. Because of the grim circumstances of my child-hood, I had missed experiencing the arts; Solange was acquainted with music, literature, drama, and the dance, which she shared with me. After the searing grief of her death, I felt the most fitting tribute to her would be a living memorial at the Ottawa Little Theatre, and I established the yearly Solange Karsh Award for the Best One-Act Play in Canada, the cash stipend accompanied by a medal based on a photograph I had taken of her one carefree day, dancing under the willow trees.

But all this was still in the future. When Lord Bessborough’s tenure was over, his successor as Governor General was Lord Tweedsmuir, better known to readers of adventure thrillers as John Buchan, the author of The Thirty-Nine Steps. He was the most informal of men, impatient with the strict protocol his position sometimes demanded. In 1936, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first American President to pay an official visit to Canada, came to Quebec City to confer with Lord Tweedsmuir and Prime Minister Mackenzie King, I was invited to photograph this eminent guest. The resultant photograph was not only my first foray into photojournalism, but also the occasion when I first met Prime Minister King. From then on, we were not strangers in the world of Ottawa, and he would in time become my patron and friend. It was King who made it possible for me to photograph Winston Churchill in Ottawa in December 1941. The world’s reception of that photograph — which captured public imagination as the epitome of the indomitable spirit of the British people — changed my life.

His International Career

A year after the Churchill photograph, early in 1943, I was on my way to England on a slow and frightening voyage on a Norwegian freighter, part of a ninety-three ship convoy. Only when I had climbed on board did her captain confide to me that the ship’s cargo hold was loaded with explosives!

In wartime London, as I photographed one exhilarating personality after another — among them George Bernard Shaw, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the British royal family — I felt once again the excitement of my apprenticeship days in Boston, drinking in the conversation of Garo and his colleagues. It was in London that I started the practice which I continue to this day of “doing my homework,” of finding out as much as I can about each person I am to photograph. I returned to Ottawa fatigued, but with a feeling of accomplishment at having completed my first “international portfolio.” My life had been enriched by meeting many remarkable personalities on this photographic odyssey, the first of many, to record those men and women who leave their mark on our era. It would set a pattern of working away from my studio. Any room in the world where I could set up my portable lights and camera—from Buckingham Palace to a Zulu kraal, from miniature Zen Buddhist temples in Japan to the splendid Renaissance chambers of the Vatican — would become my studio.

Through my photography I have not only become acquainted with some of the most celebrated personalities of our era but have had the opportunity to visit fascinating parts of the world I might not otherwise have known. On an off-the-beaten-track movie assignment in the Moroccan desert between Casablanca and Marrakesh, I put to use the Arabic I had learned as a small boy, and photographed some of the principal actors in the film Sodom and Gomorrah. The royal family of Morocco was intrigued by the presence of the film company and invited ten members of the crew on a most unorthodox deer hunt. At the foot of the mountain, our party was provided with mules, guns (I used my camera), and individual soldiers as honor guards. We awaited the arrival of our host, the Crown Prince. As we reached the top of the mountain, imagine our surprise when he finally appeared — in a helicopter roaring overhead — and proceeded to shoot his prey from above!

But wherever I traveled, it was to Little Wings, our haven and anchorage, that I always returned, with its grove of white birches and rows of Lombardy poplars on the bend of the Rideau River. It took its name from the fact that the gently rolling property was on a bird migratory route and we logged many birds each year. The trees we planted were named not after their species but for dear friends. A row of global maples flanked by beds of roses is “Avenue Marsh Jeanneret” in honor of the former Director of the University of Toronto Press, who encouraged the publication of my early books and supported me in my insistence on high aesthetic standards of reproduction. A weeping mulberry tree and an umbrella crabapple are the central focus of two kidney-shaped gardens of spring tulips and seasonal flowers I designed in honor of our friend Dr. John P. Merrill of Boston, the eminent physician and pioneer in kidney transplantation.

After World War II, my ties to the New World were drawn even closer when, some twenty years after my arrival, I was able to bring my parents and two of my brothers to my adopted land. (My other brother, Malak, had come in 1937.) I had hesitated at tearing my parents away from lifelong friends in Aleppo in the twilight of their lives and bringing them to a country completely different in language and customs. But I reckoned without their adaptability. Uncle Nakash and I secured permission to go aboard their ship before it docked in New York, to the surprise of my family and to our mutual joy. My mother and father, who had traveled little in their lives except to flee from persecution, chose to make the last lap of their journey to Canada by air, instead of by train or automobile. When the plane drew up to the ramp, after landing in Montreal, and everyone shouted “Welcome, welcome!” my parents dissolved in tears of joy, and I knew I had made the right decision.

Years later, another newcomer to Canada I brought to Little Wings when he was six weeks old. One of three brothers and sisters, he boasted a distinguished lineage, having been born in the house of an American Secretary of State. For the trip to Ottawa, I had taken the precaution of reserving two airplane seats, providing the unsuspecting reservation clerk only with the enigmatic identification “Y. Karsh and C. Karsh, young personality.” That the “young personality” made the journey in my warm coat pocket, rather than in the cold baggage car, was due to my insistence, but with the benign approval of the gentlemen in Customs and Immigration. They were also beguiled by two pounds of black, energetic poodle fluff punctuated by a cold nose. His name, Clicquot, was short for the champagne, “Veuve Clicquot.” (The proud male bore no resemblance to a veuve [widow], but he was as effervescent as champagne.) Just as I had had no real childhood, I had had no real pets. Clicquot was my first pet, my philosophical companion on long walks. He was actor enough when coming in out of what he considered misty weather to shake nonexistent drops from his dry coat with an air of reproach. He innocently chased squirrels in the wrong direction, sent holiday greetings, and freely dispensed advice to his friends on how to commandeer that extra cookie and how to look pitiful so your mistress will feed you by hand. We hoped that because he gobbled up, in one ecstatic, disobedient moment, the chocolate ankh (key of life) we had brought safely from Egypt, half a world away, he, too, might partake of its magical powers—but we hoped in vain. We still miss him.

It was a congenial medical office — one that always made me think of my original desire to be a physician — which provided the setting for Estrellita Nachbar, the gifted medical writer and historian who was to become my wife. I was in Chicago photographing her employer and mentor, one of America’s most distinguished physicians, Dr. Walter C. Alvarez. He was then bringing to millions of readers, through his syndicated column, the reassuring clinical wisdom and compassion that had made him a beloved and world-famous diagnostician at the Mayo Clinic. Estrellita had been Dr. Alvarez’s editor for some years, using her extensive literary and medical background to make difficult scientific concepts exciting and readable to the layman, and collaborating with the doctor on his current best sellers. As Newsweek whimsically put it when reporting our marriage in 1962, “Something else clicked beside the shutter.” With our marriage, at which Dr. Alvarez gave away the bride, we blended our worlds, each adding a new dimension to the other. With her editorial ability Estrellita helped me to formulate my thoughts. She also brought her organizational skills to planning trips and schedules so that work was always complemented by new discoveries. On all our travels over the years—whether to Zululand, to Japan, to Russia, to Finland, to Scandinavia, to Egypt—we have pursued our joint interests in archaeology, in art, in medicine. She has continued to write articles on medical history. I have often sat in the audience at her lectures, when her carefully concealed scholarship transforms research in old tomes into engaging and modern social history.

Early in our marriage I began to photograph, as my contribution, the National Poster Children of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Over the years our relationship with these remarkable young people has been close and meaningful. We have watched many grow up, graduate from high school and college, and marry. But not all. The premature deaths of many of these young people serve as a spur to medical researchers to try to eradicate all forms of crippling diseases.

Throughout my career, I have welcomed young people to my studio. I always think back to Garo and all he taught me, and to Edward Steichen, who took the time to discuss photography seriously with me at a crucial moment in my young career. I welcomed the intervals when I was Visiting Professor of Photography at both Ohio University at Athens and Emerson College in Boston, and was buoyed by the contact with fresh viewpoints and youthful experimentation, in a humanistic setting. Today, when it seems every young person flirts with photography, the decision to pursue it as a lifetime career is an especially important choice.

The Later Years – Boston

In June of 1992, I closed my Ottawa studio in the Château Laurier Hotel and no longer accepted commercial assignments. After sixty years, it was an emotional wrench to say good-bye to my studio family and to the camaraderie of working together. Mrs. Hella Graber, my librarian and technician for over twenty years, had already left to pursue her own career. Mr. Ignas Gabalis, my superb printer, a man of high aesthetic standards and enormous technical skill, an artist in his own right, had just marked his fortieth year with me. Mary Alderman, my secretary, with the seeming effortlessness that is the hallmark of a true professional, handled day-to-day studio operations for twenty years. Quietly, and with subtle, low-key persuasion, “Miss Mary” remained cool and unflappable at last-minute schedule changes.

One of the most gratifying studio projects of the last thirty years was a program where outstanding recent photography graduates came to work with me in Ottawa, much like the one-on-one apprenticeship I had enjoyed with Garo. Generally, these young people stayed for two years, during which time they often assisted me on assignments and reaped the benefits of honing their technical skills with Mr. Gabalis. Their social skills and introduction to Canadian culture were not neglected: three of these young men married Ottawa girls!

To this fellowship program, in 1979, came Jerry Fielder, a personable young gentleman from Monterey, California. Interested primarily in the curatorial aspects of photography, Jerry set to work putting my archives in order. In 1987 my archives, superbly organized by Jerry — including my negatives as well as color transparencies and prints — were acquired by the National Archives of Canada.

Unlike the vitriolic theater critic in the play The Man Who Came to Dinner, who could hardly wait to leave the home of his hapless hosts, Jerry remained with us in Ottawa, to our great joy. He assisted me on many exciting photographic assignments. Among them were Paris for Paris-Match magazine and M. Mitterand; Scotland and a weekend at Balmoral Castle for Queen Elizabeth, Prince Philip, and their grandchildren; and New York for Jerry’s idol, composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim — the only time I have ever seen him speechless with admiration.

Charlie Britt, also a “Karsh fellow,” emulating Jerry, remained in Ottawa for seven years and was one of the three who married Canadian girls. Both Jerry and Charlie accompanied me to the White House for photography of President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.

Closing my Ottawa studio did not mean leaving close associations; we all keep in touch. Jerry, with his blending of organizational and interpersonal skills, is still my associate.

In 1997, Estrellita and I relocated to Boston, the city of my apprenticeship and early days in the humanistic atmosphere of Garo’s studio. Our apartment is close to the Public Garden, the Museum of Fine Arts, and Symphony Hall.

More and more often now, I am asked whether I think there are as many great men and women to photograph today as in the past — whether the strengths of a Churchill or an Einstein can be found today in this era of antiheroes. When my portrait of Churchill in 1941 opened the door to the world for me and started me on my search for greatness, I had a legacy of half a century to draw upon. During the war, in one brief period in England alone, I photo-graphed forty-two leaders of international stature; and later in Washington, a similar number. After the war, there were still many personalities whose reputations extended back for decades. A Sibelius, a Helen Keller, a Schweitzer, a Casals are of enduring stature. But I believe the past has no claim on greatness, for such arresting personalities are always among us. Nor can we yet judge what lessons remain to be learned from the young. I know only that my quest continues.

The endless fascination of these people for me lies in what I call their inward power. It is part of the elusive secret that hides in everyone, and it has been my life’s work to try to capture it on film. The mask we present to others and, too often, to ourselves may lift for only a second—to reveal that power in an unconscious gesture, a raised brow, a surprised response, a moment of repose. This is the moment to record.

To my deep satisfaction, through my photographs many people have been introduced to some of the outstanding personalities of our time and, I hope, have been given a more intimate glimpse of and greater insight into them.

My own quest now has stretched for over half a lifetime. The search for greatness of spirit has compelled me to work harder — to strive for perfection, knowing it to be unattainable. My quest has brought me great joy when something close to my ideal has been attained. It has kept me young in heart, adventurous, forever seeking, and always aware that the heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.

In 1998, Karsh celebrated his 90th birthday. Queen Elizabeth II opened his exhibition, “Karsh in London,” at the renovated Canada House in Trafalgar Square. That same year Karsh was honored with the Fox Talbot Award. He died in Boston in July, 2002.

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