The Humanist Impulse of Yousuf Karsh

Artist Paul Klee said that art does not reproduce the “visible,” it makes visible. What interested him was to get to the other side of things, to see beneath the veneer of the world and into its essence. An avid experimenter, Klee distorted the human form to proxy a deeper state. In his drawings of angels can be seen the scars and pain of life among the living, our humanity.

This humanist impulse is also present in the portraits of the famous and illustrious figures of the 20th century by Canadian/Armenian photographer Yousuf Karsh, recently on view at Nicholas Metivier Gallery.

While it’s tempting to lump Karsh within the “celebrity portraiture” glut, it would be a mistake. He more rightly belongs in the tradition of oil portraiture. There are hints of Velazquez (particularly his figures of commoners) and Vermeer in the staging and lighting of his shots. Karsh is not attempting to be avant garde. He is a portrait photographer in the traditional sense. This is photography as vocation, and as discipline. A truth illustrated by film director John Ford’s statement, who self-identified as, “I’m John Ford and I make Westerns.”

Karsh is a photographer of the complexities in people. He is not alone in this pursuit. It’s evident in Paula Rego’s portrait of the artist Germaine Greer (1995), and in Lucian Freud’s portrait of Leigh Bowery (1991). It’s also clearly visible in the illustrations of Norman Rockwell, the films of John Cassavetes, and the paintings of Grandma Moses as she channels Peter Breughel the Elder.

Karsh belongs to another time, so he seems removed from us today, when images no longer represent people, but the idea of people. We are too jaded, perhaps, or literary, layered, and distrusting. But it’s to Karsh’s credit that his portraits manage to puncture our cynicism by the sheer power of their visual language, buttressed as it is by a century of testing the medium, and straining at tradition.

A survivor of the Armenian Genocide, Karsh moved to Canada at the age of 16, and settled in Sherbrook, Quebec, where he worked at his uncle’s photography studio. He then apprenticed with the famous American photographer John Garo in Boston, thereafter establishing his own photography studio in Ottawa, at the stately Château Laurier hotel.

This all seems like pretty tired, “old world” stuff. An artist, who actually apprenticed at a photo studio for years, got his chops, moved up the ladder, photographed world leaders, became a national treasure and an international icon. Yet the diminutive Karsh could not have been more down to earth, not flashy or aristocratic at all, but simple, kind, and amiable, as if he was still that 15 year-old boy in Mardin, in the middle of the Ottoman Empire.

There must be something to this. Karsh is disarming. He is to portrait photography what “the little grey man” is to espionage; someone who puts you at ease, someone you trust.

This is evident in the demeanor of his sitters. Despite fame and tall walls they reveal something of themselves. Photographer Richard Avedon famously said, “People come to me to be photographed as they would go to a doctor or a fortune-teller – to find out how they really are.” The same is true of Karsh, who created the most candid and iconic image of Sir Winston Churchill ever produced. Here in his own words, he describes the setting:

Mr. Churchill, as he was then, had been addressing the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa on December 30; he was in no mood for portraiture and two minutes were all he would allow me as he passed from the House of Commons Chamber to the an ante-room … He marched scowling, and regarded my camera as he might regard the German enemy. His expression suited me perfectly, if I could capture it, but the cigar thrust between his teeth seemed somehow incompatible with such a solemn and formal occasion. Instinctively I removed the cigar. At this the Churchillian scowl deepened, the head was thrust forward belligerently, and the hand placed on the hip in an attitude of anger. So he stands in my portrait in what has always seemed to me to be the image of England in those years, defiant and unconquerable – With a swift change of mood, he came towards me when I was finished, extending his hand and saying, “Well, you can certainly make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”

Churchill is not just “defiant and unconquerable” in this portrait, he is the rock of Gibraltar. He stands like a dolmen, unmovable, unshakable, and impenetrable. But there is something else. He also appears hurt. In Karsh’s portrait, one gets the impression that, deprived of his little friend, Churchill assumed an abject pout, projecting a level of emotional complexity. Which is, incidentally what I love the most about Churchill. When I first read his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, it resounded in my head as if shouted out from the rooftops as a challenge to the Nazis. When I heard the recording of Churchill’s voice delivering the speech, I got the opposite. You had a kind, sure, and comforting voice; a voice that seemed to say, “dear sir, we’re not taking this lying down.” It wasn’t a challenge; it was a statement of fact, from a blood-run individual, with hurt feelings about the Blitz, and with the determination to do something about it, representing the sentiments of an entire nation. Not a bully like Mussolini, not a maniac like Hitler. Churchill’s voice is the voice of sane, rational resolve. And all of these complexities are also evident in Karsh’s image of the old Statesman, dropping his guard yet keening forward.

Karsh’s portrait of Fidel Castro is equally powerful. Regardless of ideological preference, leaders like Castro have the blood of thousands (sometimes millions) on their hands. In his book Violence, Slavoj Žižek recounts the story of a reporter who gets to interview the last surviving member of Stalin’s inner circle, responsible for collectivization and its aftermath of starvation and cannibalism. The reporter wonders what he’ll ask the old man; does he feel guilt for his actions? Regret? Eventually the reporter realizes that he just wants to see how an evil person lives, what books they keep around. But you don’t get that with Castro. He doesn’t appear avuncular or complacent. He stares at the lens with dead eyes that are not quite dead but teeming with vigor. They are lucid but distant. It’s as if Fidel is away, still fighting Battista’s army deep in the Sierra Maestra.

How far we have strayed in this age of the selfie. Andy Warhol, another immigrant from the East, is largely responsible. He is the one who divorced the image from the person. Giving the world portraits of glamor and fame that were based on pre-existing images, and that spoke to the idea of fame itself as the subject, and a worthy one, too. And yet Warhol’s iconic image of Elizabeth Taylor (on display at the National Portrait Gallery in England, hung alongside a portrait of the Queen) can trace its origins back to a photograph of Taylor taken by Karsh, in 1946, during the period of her appearance in the film National Velvet.

Today, fed up with the seeming emptiness of the current times, Warhol’s children struggle to catch a little bit of Karsh’s fire. During an interview for the DVD release of his film Rize, photographer David La Chappelle (who began his career as an assistant to Warhol), discusses the film’s impetus:

It’s not about the camera, and it’s not about the lights … you know, it’s about having a feeling, having faith. I wanted to make a film because I knew I was capable. And I wanted to do something that had more depth than the things I was given. The jobs that I was doing at the time felt shallow, superficial, and very commercial. I knew I needed to make films. And this film found me, this subject found me, and I didn’t realize where it would take me. But I knew I had to keep going and finish it. I said, let’s treat the film as if it’s precious, because the subject is precious. We steadied the camera; we went against the grain in terms of filming. We did not edit to the music, we edited to the dance. I also didn’t want the camera to do the work. I didn’t want the camera to give us the energy. I wanted the energy to come from the dance, because there’s plenty of energy in the dance. We didn’t need to enhance it. I didn’t need to put any special effects. I didn’t need to swing the camera out to make it all “interesting”; it already was the most interesting thing I’d ever seen. These (the dancers) are the special effects.

La Chappelle’s documentary, which registers the lives and work of several krumpers and clown dancers, youth from South Central L.A. who use dance as a constructive alternative to gangbanging and other forms of violence, does have depth (unlike his glamorous, stagey images of celebrities created for publications like Paris Vogue). The dance sequences – which, as the title at the beginning of the film informs us “have not been sped up or altered in any way” – are some of the most beautiful images of dance ever captured. Rivaled only perhaps by the superb pictures of the Nuba dancers of The Sudan, as recorded by Leni Riefenstahl (and quoted in La Chappelle’s film) or her images of Olympic divers and other athletes in her film Olympia.

These are images of humanity at its most vital, at its most authentic, “warts and all,” as Sanford Meisner said about emotional complexity. La Chappelle comes across in these casual interviews not as a millionaire big shot photographer and celebrity, but as one of the people, someone who feels. I believe that at that point, he came in touch with his inner Karsh.

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