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American Legends by Yousuf Karsh

From its inception to the present times, photographic portraiture has been one of the most extensively used phenomena in art and science to record the human condition and activate its development. It has also enabled us to recognize the gifted human beings, whose abilities and achievements can potentially inform, lead and shape our lives. The most definitive incursion of photographic portraiture in my visual vocabulary took place when a monograph on Yousuf Karsh’s work was presented by the late Mian Abdul Majeed to my father in the early 1990’s. This gift exchange between a photographer and a painter, both accomplished practitioners of portraiture- instilled at that time, an enduring fascination with the portrayal of humanity in images.

Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) was born in Armenia when it was under Ottoman rule and at the age of 14 he left for Syria and then two years later to Quebec to escape the Armenian genocide of Christians.  Karsh, American Legends: Photographs and Commentary by Yousuf Karsh, published in 1992 is a 160 page, hardcover book, designed by Carl Zahn in a quarto format, constituting Yousuf Karsh’s commentary with  44 full-color and 44 duotone photographs.

Karsh rose to global fame when his portrait of Winston Churchill was published in 1941 and his remarkable career spanned more than half a century. The circumstances that led Karsh to capture the defiant expression on Churchill’s face reveal the artist’s intuitive methodology. As the leader of a nation about to embark on war, struck a pose to be photographed with his trademark cigar in his mouth, Karsh quickly went up to him, snapped the cigar out of his mouth and clicked the shutter in that very instant! The angry stare with which the statesman retorted was to symbolize Britain’s resolute wartime courage.

“The endless fascination of these people for me lies in what I call their inward power.”Karsh had said in his final years, “It is part of the elusive secret that hides in everyone, and it has been my life’s work to try to capture it on film. The mask we present to others and too often, to ourselves may lift for only a second – to reveal that power in an unconscious gesture, a raised brow, a surprised response, a moment of repose. This is the moment to record.”

Unlike his other books, Yousuf Karsh did not choose the subjects for American Legends from portraits that he had taken over an extensive period of time. The book showcases seventy-three photographs of North-American men and women, intensively taken during 1990 and 1991. In the introduction, Karsh focuses on the fact that photographs of the people included in the book are homage to their intellectual, artistic and spiritual contributions.

“The personalities in this book comprise only a small sample of the extraordinary gifted people who make up the fabric of America. I hope I have given the viewer an intimate glimpse – a fresh insight – into their minds and spirits.”

Karsh’s color portrait of vocal artist, Jessye Norman, adorns the front of the jacket of the monograph- described in the book as “a gracious goddess, disciplined and devoted to her art”. The back displays a portrait of the photographer with the Puppeteer Jim Henson and his creation Kermit the Frog, by Jeffrey Sowards. Karsh quotes journalist Jonathan Schwartz describing Henson as “Professor of Growing Up… (who) swooped up our kids in the gentle process of discovery.” The frontispiece of the monograph is Karsh’s portrait by George O’ Neill, Jr. and his witty caricature by Al Hirschfeld appears with the list of subjects. Karsh dedicated this monograph to his wife Estrellita Nachbar, for conceiving “the idea of the book”. Being a medical writer and historian, her editorial abilities helped Karsh to formulate his thoughts throughout his career- supported by their shared interests in art, archaeology and medicine.

Karsh’s photographs reflect his mastery of the inspection technique which is attained through developing the negatives manually, producing optimal shadows in specific areas of the images. Marked by a varied tonal range, he concentrated on the expressive characteristics of his subjects- using the tones to draw meaningful contrasts.

As the book unfolds, a sequential choreography is established leading the mind to gently tap into realms of music, art and design into the domains of sports, science, publishing and philanthropy.

“Focus”, Karsh begins the photographic odyssey quoting Dancer, Judith Jamison with her profile gesturing outward and a frontal portrait bound inward, “luxuriate; wrap yourself around the music.” Portraits of Choreographers, Jerome Robbins and Martha Graham, use the hand gestures again- to set up an emotive stage. The luminaries of stage and screen photographed for this monograph include Theater Producer, Director and Playwright, George Abbott, Actress, Angela Lansbury, Film Director, Billy Wilder and Actor, Charlton Heston. A cheerful and animated Jim Henson is profiled next to his adversely somber-looking frontal shot- presenting the coexistence of binary forces at work, typical to the art of Puppetry. Perseverance is echoed first in a painting in the background of Arthur Miller’s portrait and subsequently in the Playwright’s words: “Everyone has agonies. The difference is that I try to take my agonies home and teach them to sing.”

Music enriches a lineup of images, gently humming love sonnets to a proficient class of Composers, Instrumentalists and Vocal Artists. Composers, Stephen Sondheim and Philip Glass – Piano Virtuoso, Rudolf Serkin – Violinist, Isaac Stern and Vocal Artists, Marilyn Horne and Jessye Norman – all seem to effortlessly hone their finely tuned personas for the image-maker. When image-makers are turned into images, Karsh composes the surroundings of his peers and fellow comrades, charged with their signature works. The scheme aptly applies to the portraits of Photographer, Berenice Abbott, Artist, Al Hirschfeld and Architect, I M Pei. Karsh’s appreciation for the art of cuisine is reflected with an exuberantly colorful study in the portrait of Restaurateur, Joseph Baum. The world of sports is celebrated educating the youth through portraits of Baseball Coach, Bob Cousy and Basketball Coach, John Wooden.

The acumen of inspiring mentors from the world of science is interpreted in Karsh’s photograph of discoverer of the structure of DNA and Nobel Laureate, James Watson. The recurring attribute of a personality accredited as an institution within itself looms large in images representing Art Dealer, Leo Castelli, Publisher of Washington Post and Newsweek, Katharine Graham and Philanthropist, David Rockefeller. Karsh’s pictorial tribute to the Humanitarian, Mother Clara Hale, Founder of Hale House, a home for children of drug-addicted and AIDS mothers- conclusively establishes a solemn articulation of social activism and compassion.

Twenty years down the line, American Legends still resonates with a magnetism that revitalizes inspiration, iconography and cerebral facades. Yousuf Karsh must have envisaged his book to contribute towards upholding “the spirit of America”for generations to come. On the contrary, legacies of his subjects seem to have been relentlessly hampered, over a period of only two decades. Artist, architect and political activist, Ai Weiwei describes America as “a nation with a great tradition of belief in democratic society, fairness and justice, but that has now almost completely lost its ability to protect that ideology and has deteriorated into a state of deep economic and ideological shame that is self-made”.1 It would be unfair to declare that people with equivalent statures as those of Yousuf Karsh’s “Legends” do not exist any more in arguably the largest aid-donor nation of the world. But, the generic optimism with which the photographer charged this book seems to have been eclipsed by the very nation’s formidable greed of the world’s natural and human resources.

Despite the flaws and predicaments, the development of a nation remains rooted in the commemoration of its finest minds. This assertion enables the goodwill evoked by Karsh, American Legends, not to fade away from the tests of time.

1My Eight by Ai Weiwei, ArtAsiaPacific, Sep/Oct 2009, Issue 65

 

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