WWD TURNS THE FOCUS ON TWO PROMINENT PHOTOGRAPHERS.
Byline: Mort Sheinman, September 1971 / Beverly Grunwald, September 1976
He has photographed presidents and princes, prime ministers and popes, but the one face that has eluded Yousuf Karsh all his life belongs to a retired movie actress who hasn’t worked in 30 years.
“Ahhh, if only I could photograph Greta Garbo,” he said, his soft brown eyes widening. “That would be something.”
Garbo may have successfully avoided Karsh’s lens, but she is one of the few world figures who has. For over three decades, the Armenian-born portraitist has put on film many of the most powerful people on earth. He arrived in Quebec in 1924, wanting very much to be a doctor. “But I had little academic training and I didn’t know the language,” he said. Although he never became a doctor, he has stood next to Michael DeBakey and Denton Cooley while each man performed major surgery, and today he speaks four languages: “French, English, Arabic and, under duress, I profane in Turkish.”
Karsh’s uncle, a man named George Nakash, was a professional photographer and he presented the new arrival with his first camera. One of his early photos was entered in a local contest, winning a prize, and by the time Karsh was 20, he was hooked.
“At that time,” he said, “I had the good fortune to be sent to Boston to work with a most wonderful and sympathetic man, John H. Garo. I became his apprentice. He was a portrait photographer who worked only by available light. Consequently, he would stop working every day at 4 p.m…”
When his apprenticeship ended, Karsh set up his own studio in Ottawa, “because it was the capital and would attract the most interesting people,” he said.
One of those “interesting people” was Sir Winston Churchill, who went to Ottawa in 1941 to address the Canadian Parliament. London was then being torn by Nazi bombs and Sir Winston was in no mood to pose for pictures when Karsh asked to do the job. Two minutes were set aside for the project. But the result was an unforgettable portrait of a resolute, defiant bulldog of a man, hand on hip, jaw thrust forward and a scowl on his face — a scowl put there when Karsh impulsively leaned across his camera and plucked the cigar from Sir Winston’s mouth. The picture was used on commemorative stamps issued in six countries and catapulted Karsh into international prominence. “There’s been no rest for me ever since,” he said.
There here aren’t many photographers who deny themselves the luxury of background and props and unwind nine-foot rolls of no-seam white paper, favor daylight and duck behind a camera on a tripod with a Brady-like black cloth. It’s impressive. Avedon usually takes from 15 to 25 exposures.
“I try to allow the people really — if that’s possible — to photograph themselves. It’s interesting. I think they pose because they want to be told something about themselves that they didn’t know…”
What does Avedon’s eye search for? “The quality of a person,” he says. He doesn’t believe in glorifying people into “portraits of greatness” a la Karsh just because they hold important positions. That’s not the person. As he puts it, “Even the pope goes to the bathroom.”
He knows and is not intimidated by the people he photographs because he lives in and has succeeded in their world. He’s not interested in photographing the man on the street.
“I’m not a coal miner. I didn’t grow up in the dust bowl. There’s a particular kind of sentimentality in those pictures that disgusts me — the beauty in being poor and starving. I have grown up in New York, spent my life in New York and from very early on have been surrounded by artists and writers and political conversation. And that’s the world I wanted to belong to and was drawn to and understand. I really think that the degree of knowledge that you have or presume to have is all you have to put in a photograph.”