Murray Pomerance, "Karsh Realities"

Canadian Art Vol. 10 No. 1, Spring 1993

In a revealing scene in Martin Scorsese's The King of Comedy, two fans are cruising East 53rd Street in New York, hoping to glimpse a celebrity talk-show host as he walks from his apartment building into the street. "Is that him?" says the first, when a man in an expensive suit appears, but the second, an expert, demurs. "It looks too much like him. When it's him it doesn't look like him."

In real life, famous people never look the way we expect them to. Rather than grimacing professionally, they shop for teabags and read newspapers that contain pictures of themselves grimacing professionally. If Yousuf Karsh knows this, you'd never guess from his most famous pictures, which embody the quintessence of theatricality. Like Daumier with his cartoons, Karsh caricatures received opinion, legitimizing it as no other representer can claim to do. Our imaginings of virtually every great public figure of the twentieth century have been shaped by Karsh's view.

There's more to a Karsh than meets the first glance of one's eye. See Ernest Hemingway, twice--modernist master of the nude declarative, who said of Ford Madox Ford, "I always held my breath when I was near him in a closed room." In the Karsh portrait he is at first only stalwart, brazen, hard---Hemingwayesque! Indeed, what it is to be Hemingwayesque is exactly the content of this picture. It is only on the second look that we see the frightened eyes, the timid retraction of the mouth, the awkward trembling spirit that would lead him finally, one morning in 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho, to fragment his skull with a shotgun. Many, after that suicide, said they saw it coming. Karsh went further.

The uptightness of the typical Karsh subject is notable. Many seem altogether depressed. Statesmen and performers gaze quizzically afar, bereft of comfort, fixated upon some distant, transforming geist of the twentieth century. Karsh's view accords with Munch's, with Beckmann's, with Picasso's most twisted moments. For one brief glimpse in 1946, Peter Lorre was as anguished as the blue guitarist. Georges Enesco seems positively moribund under a bookshelf. Somerset Maugham's face, described by the photographer in the Karsh Portfolio as "wise, and almost ageless" seems on the point of a nauseated scream. The catalogue triste goes on.

In many ways, Karsh began with Winston Churchill in 1941. Snatching that celebrated stogie from those indomitable lips, the photographer became for Churchill what Hitler had become, too--an arrogant scoundrel. The response, catalogued for all time, is generally read as a fierce scowl, the visual equivalent of "We shall never surrender." Many have seen this picture so often, indeed, they can no longer look. But have they realized that Churchill is pouting? That he displays the manicured, effete fingers of Gainsborough's Blue Boy?

In accomplishing so broad-based and yet so meticulous a record, Karsh exemplifies not what was originally Armenian in him, but what is latterly Canadian: the desire to study greatness, to applaud it at a distance. (Interestingly, his portraits of Canadians are his least successful.) Maybe there are no fans anywhere more loyal than Canadians, nowhere so eager an audience waiting for the performance to begin, somewhere else. By the time his powers reached their height in the 1960s, Yousuf Karsh had become the ultimate Canadian, crystallizing our national self-effacement and impressionability in the face of all we deem immeasurably greater than ourselves. In this sense, as he travels the world in search of ever greater, ever more widely recognizable faces to re-present to us, Karsh of Ottawa commits the ultimate and most telling form of Canadian art: he's in the audience, staring at the faces that are begging to be stared at. He's the man with the best seat.

And what greatness would not come to be reflected in his lens? Schweitzer, Marian Anderson, Helen Keller, Audrey Hepburn, Jung, Albert Einstein--all masks! Einstein's intelligence, his actual head, was surely incandescent with luminous power, and how very Einsteinian does Einstein look, his hair a sweet candy floss glimmering in fairy light. The mundane mouth that spoke of peace to the bellicose world, that said all the wrong things in Grade three math class, that pronounced aloud to physicists the phrase "E=mc2," is muffled by a goofy yodeller's moustache, the sort that dips absent-mindedly into the barley soup. The eyes are desperately weary.

Many of these masks show--indeed exaggerate--precisely what we would expect them to. Bertrand Russell smokes his pipe thoughtfully (we think). John Kenneth Galbraith points wisely to the future--or is it the past? Bored Marshall McLuhan is himself mediated by the photographic frame. Margaret Atwood smiles authorially, interrupted while fiddling with a manuscript. Gregory Peck leans on a tome from which he may dramatically quote. Oh, how postmodern to have us waiting for those honeyed words that will never come.

We become what we behold. Having spent a lifetime photographing the well-known, Karsh has himself become famous. Yet what we know of him, even from reading his autobiography, is not very revealing. The same few details are repeated everywhere, abbreviated and somewhat too polished. Born in Mardin, Armenian Turkey, in 1908, he fled the unkind dominion of the Turks for Canada, alone, at the age of fifteen. He immigrated to Sherbrooke, Quebec where, under the tutelage of an uncle, he achieved such skill in photography that he won a landscape prize. For several years he apprenticed at 739 Boylston Street, Boston, with the then rather prominent painter and photographer John H. Garo, at whose side he first experienced the ecstasies of sculpting with natural light. Garo was an opinionated mentor, Karsh a promising student. Eventually he moved to Ottawa where, after a brief foray into theatrical photography, he set up shop on the sixth floor of the Château Laurier. From there, he set out to photography the celebrated personalities who flocked to Parliament Hill. Until he closed it on June 30, 1992, he operated what was long the most glamorously populated portrait studio in the world.

Karsh is one of the very few Canadian artists who touch upon twentieth-century culture as though it were saddening. By contrast, Michael Snow is amused, Alex Colville distanced, Robertson Davies titillated, Irving Layton heated up. But to see our own disenchantment, we must go to Karsh. He reflects what Auden called the "Age of Anxiety"--Auden who was photographed October 30, 1972, with bleak face, hands stuffed nervously into pockets, daylight sloshing around him sharp and cold. In the new Karsh work, a good deal of which is printed in rather unexpressive colour, the sadness is given by a dearth of light. Jasper Johns and Cesar Chavez and Dominique de Menil struggle out of the darkness

It is the older work--what we might call vintage Karsh--that galvanizes us. Precisely aimed key lighting embosses the sitter with a sweet patina of truth. Yuri Gagarin, for instance, the first human being to enter space: two years to the day after he did it, Karsh photographed him in the Soviet Union. The light is used to sculpt the cosmonaut's face, although on his torso, clad in military uniform, it sits flat in two drab dimensions. What photographers call "hot spots"--flashes of over-exposed whiteness--pock the whole face (the cheeks, the nose, the lower lip, the chin, the temples, the brow, and under the eyes) as though all of these promontories have been burned by some strange intergalactic illumination. The eyes, newborn to a greater cosmos, would later be matched by Keir Dullea's in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A fantastic sheen of pure adventure coats his face

The new Karsh is different. The personalities he offers in his new book, Karsh, American Legends, were photographed in their homes--seventy-three men and women whose gifts "enrich our national life." His earlier northern gravity is domesticated, made buoyant, merely cosmetic. The adulation that once made his subjects radiate unnaturally has become a fawning parody of respect. Where he once dismissed the common man as being far less interesting than the star, he now transforms stars into common folk. Consider H. Norman Schwarzkopf, U. S. Army General, Retired, meditating coolly in Karsh's American Legends show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, until April 18. In his camouflage shirt, flashing a Rolex on each wrist, this man is nothing less than the military avatar of our times. But the eyes are those of a weather forecaster or the owner of a pet shop; the mouth tries valiantly to say "Cheese."

Leonard Bernstein, however, stuns. Turned quite sharply off-axis, he is absorbed with his piano where he sits in a musical trance--much as Glenn Gould was, concentrating on his left thumb, more than thirty years before. Manuscript paper waits virtually blank on the music stand, and at it, like a pencil, Bernstein is pointing a fuming cigarette. "Look, look, look, if you must," he seems to signal to the photographer and all of us, "But I am working and time flies." Eclipse these surfaces. Listen to the music.