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CANADA: A Gallery of Greatness

3 minute read

After a photographer’s apprenticeship in Boston, Armenian-born Yousuf Karsh set up his own portrait studio in Ottawa because he yearned to photograph prominent men. Now a courtly 51, Karsh of Ottawa is as renowned as most of his subjects. Last week the Canadian capital paid the world’s foremost portrait photographer the unusual compliment of an exhibition at the National Gallery.

The exhibition is Karsh’s gallery of greatness—portraits of the 74 statesmen, artists, poets, scientists and philosophers, from the legions he has photographed, whom Karsh considers most qualified by their “concern and love for fellowman.” He winnowed the number from his own wider selection of 96 world leaders in his best-selling (41,000 copies at $17.50) Portraits of Greatness, which was published last winter. Sir Winston Churchill alone still appears twice—in the celebrated 1942 defiant portrait that Karsh achieved by audaciously snitching the grumpy Churchill’s cigar from his mouth, and in a 1955 elder statesman pose. “Sir Winston is the greatest man in a thousand years,” says Karsh.

Photographer Karsh’s camera has missed few of the greatest of the past 25 years, and he still flies as much as 80,000 miles a year keeping up with the non-Joneses. “I really hate work,” he says, “but what keeps a photographer good and modest is his dedication to his work.” Last August Karsh was just sitting down with a dinner party of illustrious scientists and educators in his home, near Ottawa, when he received a call from Washington. “There were enough brains in my home to have split an atom. But I had to get my picture.” Karsh excused himself, hurried to Washington, where he had appointments to photograph Vice President Nixon and Democratic Presidential Candidate Jack Kennedy. Nixon missed the sitting, but Karsh expects to return to do him within the next fortnight. Since the U.S. conventions, he has also photographed Vice-Presidential Candidates Henry Cabot Lodge and Lyndon Johnson.

“My technique is one of pure simplicity,” says Karsh. “I generate so much enthusiasm when working that the subject becomes part and parcel of this enthusiasm.” Actually it is not that simple. He arms himself with extensive research on the habits, mannerisms and quirks of his subject. “I live in utter agony after I have taken the picture. I know there are so many things I could have done to make it better, but I am exhausted.” His fees: $600 in the U.S., $200 for Ottawans, $300 for anyone who comes from elsewhere to Ottawa.

As a portraitist, Karsh readily discusses his favorite portraits—his Helen Keller, Hemingway, and Hammarskjold, besides the famous Churchill—but declines to nominate his best in the conviction that he has not yet taken it. “Perhaps,” he says, “tomorrow.”

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