Feature

New exposure for master portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh

Fifteen years after Yousuf Karsh died, a much more complete picture of the great portrait photographer’s life and work is available online.

Website devoted to life and work of famed photographer brings iconic images into digital age

A candid shot of Yousuf Karsh chatting with Ernest Hemingway. Karsh travelled to Havana, Cuba in 1957 to photograph the famed American writer. (Copyright Estate of Yousuf Karsh)
It's been 15 years since Yousuf Karsh died. At the time, digital was just starting to overtake film as the most popular photographic medium.
For decades Jerry Fielder was Karsh's assistant at the photographer's studio in the Chateau Laurier Hotel. Fielder now lives in Paris. (CBC)
It's perhaps long overdue, but now a much more complete picture of the great portrait photographer's life and work is available online on a website devoted to his work that launched last month.

The website not only showcases Karsh's best-known portraits, it reveals many previously unpublished or rarely seen photos of the photographer behind the scenes.

Yousuf Karsh with Jerry Fielder. Fielder became Karsh's Assistant in 1979. He travelled the world with his boss looking after the technical aspects of portrait sessions. Fielder is director of the Estate of Yousuf Karsh. (Copyright Estate of Yousuf Karsh)
You can view candid photos of Karsh with people such as Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, fellow photographer Ansel Adams, Pope John XXlll and Ronald Reagan, to name but a few.

There is even a group shot of Karsh with Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog and also a rich trove of video and audio interviews.

'It's a labour of love'

In the background of some of the photos is Jerry Fielder, Karsh's long-time Ottawa assistant and the director of the Estate of Yousuf Karsh, and one of small group of people on both sides of the border responsible for exposing Karsh to a wider online audience.

"I'll tell you," Fielder says from Boston, "for everyone that knew him and has worked with him, it's a labour of love."

"One of the goals was for people to know more about Yousuf as a person, to know something about him personally."

As a boy, Karsh grew up during the horrors of the Armenian genocide. His parents managed to save enough to send him to the safety of Canada where he eventually established an Ottawa portrait studio.

The first studio was on Sparks Street on the second floor of a building that was later named the Hardy Arcade. Next, his studio moved to the Chateau Laurier Hotel where Karsh and his wife, Estrellita, also lived.

His career went into high gear after his photograph of a stern-looking Winston Churchill came to define the resilience of the British people during World War ll.

The photograph was taken after Churchill gave a speech in 1941 in Ottawa.

Karsh famously took Churchill's cigar over his objections, an act that shocked others in the room, triggered Churchill's frown and produced one of the best-known photographs in the world.

When people think of Winston Churchill, it's the picture on the left they likely imagine. While in Ottawa in 1941, Churchill spared a bit of time to sit for Yousuf Karsh. When the youthful photographer famously took the British prime minister's iconic cigar, it produced the enduring scowl later featured on the cover of Life magazine. Less known is the portrait on the right in which a far calmer Churchill seems to have quickly recovered from the shock of losing his beloved Havana. (Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada/R613-566, e010751643)

'A special feeling for Ottawa'

Passport photos by Yousuf Karsh. Karsh is known for his portraits of the famous, but during his long career thousands of people in the Ottawa area were photographed at his Ottawa studio. (Copyright the Estate of Yousuf Karsh)
While he is remembered for his portraits of the famous, Karsh also photographed thousands of Ottawa area residents.

"He had a very special feeling for Ottawa," says Fielder. "It was his home and it welcomed him … so he was very grateful and happy to photograph the citizens."

Fielder says Karsh was genuinely interested in people and their social standing and said it didn't make a difference in how he photographed them.

"Whether you are the head waiter or the Head of State he treated everyone exactly the same … no one was vetted. He was happy to photograph anyone. And you would call and make an appointment. And sometimes it was quite a bit in advance, but he was happy to do it."

One of the benefits of the group's website is the ability to search the names of the more than 15,000 people Karsh photographed, famous or not.

Yousuf Karsh with physicist Albert Einstein at Princeton University in 1948. (Copyright Estate of Yousuf Karsh)
Archival treasure trove

Archivist Jill Delaney at the Gatineau Preservation Centre of Library and Archives Canada. The climate controlled facility is home to more than 150 thousand Karsh negatives. (CBC)
That is a real benefit, according to Jill Delaney, an archivist at Library and Archives Canada who was consulted during its creation.

"We often get contacted by people in Ottawa or around the area asking if we have a photograph that Karsh may have taken," Delaney says.

"They may already have one print of a portrait that he took, but they might be interested in seeing some of the other negatives that were taken.

"With this website what they can do is they can go in and just enter the name of their grandfather or grandmother or great uncle or whoever and see if the sitting actually exists, and we might have something and then they can contact us and we can try and make that material available to them."

Delaney says people can usually obtain a scan of an image for personal use or research purposes.

An 8-by-10-inch view camera negative of John Diefenbaker, when he was leader of the official opposition. Karsh photographed Diefenbaker in 1957. (Simon Gardner/CBC)

Massive collection with Library and Archives

Stanley Park, photographed in 1952 by Yousuf Karsh. (Copyright Estate of Yousuf Karsh)
However, the Karsh estate does not allow images for commercial purposes such as advertising or for printing on items such as T-shirts and coffee mugs.

Library and Archives Canada has some 355,000 items in its Karsh collection, including all of his negatives, which are kept in a climate-controlled facility in Gatineau operated by Library and Archives Canada.

Seeing the massive collection provides a greater appreciation of the scope of Karsh's work.

The collection is not just portraits.

One of Karsh's earliest photographs in the collection is a 1926 shot of a lake, thought to be in the Sherbrooke area of Quebec. It had never been published. There are also passport photos, photos of families, babies and children.

"Everybody has to start somewhere," says Delaney.

Senator Barry Goldwater, 1963, by Yousuf Karsh. During his lifetime, Karsh was frequently assigned to photograph politicians. (Copyright Estate of Yousuf Karsh)

'All the time he was watching'

Ernest Hemingway, Cuba 1957, by Yousuf Karsh. (Copyright Estate of Yousuf Karsh)
"He had to build up his business (in the early years) and so, of course, in order to make a living he was photographing whoever came through the door and whoever made an appointment and he was actually undercharging compared to a lot of the other studio photographers in town in order to build up that business," Delaney says.

Even the photographs of the famous are a revelation.

Delaney pulls out a thick manila envelope full of photographs and huge eight-by-ten inch negatives from the session with Ernest Hemingway.

The portrait of Hemingway is one of his most well-known, with Hemingway somber and wearing a burly fisherman's sweater. Karsh took the photograph in 1957 in Havana, Cuba.

Less known are the profile photos of Hemingway with a slight grin and without the sweater.

"He didn't just take a single photograph and that was it," says Delaney. "We sometimes have that impression with a photographer. Well, even with a photographer as talented as Karsh, he would shoot many negatives for one sitting and choose the one he felt best portrayed what he was trying to say about the person."

A young Gregory Peck photographed by Yousuf Karsh in 1946. (CAMERA PRESS/Yousuf Karsh)
Karsh typically took about 20 to 25 photographs of a subject, and Fielder says his boss was charming and sincere and soon gained the trust of his subjects. Karsh would often meet people a day before the sitting so he could gain insight into their personality.

"He was a great raconteur and he was great company and people would love talking with him, but all the time he was watching. He was paying attention to what was natural, what was real," Fielder says.

Still discovering photos

Fielder says he, along with web designer Mike Hartley and licensing agent Julie Grahame, plan to keep the site updated to reflect current events.

"Jackie Robinson was just honoured this past week for seventy years, the 70th anniversary of breaking the colour barrier in baseball," Fielder says. "And so we have a link to an article on that and link to the statue that was dedicated in his name and Mr. Karsh's portrait of him."

He was a great raconteur and he was great company and people would love talking with him, but all the time he was watching. He was paying attention to what was natural, what was real.- Yousuf Karsh's longtime assistant, Jerry Fielder

Delaney has been overseeing the Karsh collection for nearly two decades, but said she is still discovering new photographs.

"You never know what you are going to find when you open up a box," she says.

"You might be going into a box to look for one particular sitting but then right next to that is a famous politician and right next to that is a famous movie star and right next to that is maybe somebody not so famous that you don't really know."

Yousuf Karsh with photographer Ansel Adams. (Copyright Estate of Yousuf Karsh)