Some of them and some of me
Great portraits are as much about the artist as they are about their subjects. This is true whether the artist is a sculptor, a painter or a photographer. Successful portraits are invariably not only likenesses of the subject, but also portraits of the artist. In every successful portrait there is always ‘some of them and some of me’.
It is the proportion of this mix that becomes all-important — the balance between the ‘them and me’.
Intentionally or not, photographers are commentators. Most are visually opinionated. If there is too much of ‘me’ in the photograph, then the portrait becomes a story about me. Too much of ‘them’ and the resulting picture will have no opinion. Many photographers want to impose their opinions on the subjects — sometimes doing the subject a great injustice in the process.
In a manner of speaking, our opinions also become our photographic ‘style’. How we think, how we see the world, our attitudes, our beliefs, our personalities, our backgrounds, how we live — all this may be reflected in a portrait. I believe when our opinions overpower the personality of our subjects, the picture becomes a story about the photographer — the subject just becomes an object in front of our lens. For me the best portraits are a blending of both the subject and the photographer — a bit like a conversation where no one dominates and no one shouts.
Perhaps this is the charm of photography — a conversation where no one quite agrees. No two picture-makers think alike. Put two photographers in the same room and we seldom agree on anything — so it is perhaps fortunate that Yousuf Karsh and Athol Shmith never met. If they had, I’m sure their ensuing conversation would have had some interesting dynamics!
Their two personalities were poles apart. Karsh had little formal education. When I met him in 1992 he reminded me of a street fighter — diminutive, pugnacious, domineering and opinionated. Quick movements belying his age ‘I’m 83 in December!’ Throughout my time with him, he never listened, continually interrupted and tried to control my portrait session. Shmith, on the other hand, who was roughly of the same vintage, was educated, urbane, elegant and a great listener. I recall him saying,‘Someone once wrote that the art of listening is as difficult as the art of the orator. Well, in fact it’s harder. So many people just don’t listen.’
It’s most likely that Shmith was unknown to Karsh, even though they photographed many of the same people. It’s probably also fortuitous, because Athol didn’t have much respect for Karsh’s work.
SHMITH: There are one or two photographers I have little time for. One is Ansel Adams — possibly the most commercial photographer who ever lived. He’s not the ultimate ‘art photographer’ proposed endlessly by the Americans, he’s just a commercial photographer who created dozens of duplicated images in his darkroom.
And the other is Karsh.
What’s wrong with Karsh? What a dream of an opportunity he had! To be selected to photograph all those famous people! Fortunately more significant photographers also photographed them because, apart from a couple of portraits, most of his pictures are only skin deep — I mean, the man had to get a couple of shots right with all those great subjects!
In a sense, Karsh’s portraits are like empty buildings. He photographs the persons’ face, not the persons’ soul. His pictures remind me of those Detroit car photos — probably a ridiculous analogy but everything’s just a little too perfect and the end result is rather slick. You are forced to decide what is important about Karsh’s work: his collection of subjects or his collection of pictures.
Someone once said that we are the sum total of everything we have experienced. Perhaps it’s also true to claim that most of our memory banks are filled before we are five years old. Could this be a reason why Yousuf Karsh devoted his life to recording ‘the good the great and the gifted’ — because of his disastrous childhood? Karsh and Shmith couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. Karsh spent his childhood in Armenia — a tiny country on the border of Turkey, about one tenth the size of the State of Victoria.
KARSH: My father could neither read nor write, but he had exquisite taste and travelled to distant lands where he bought and traded in rare and beautiful things — furniture, rugs, paintings and spices. We lost everything when we were forced to leave Armenia.
Between 1915 and 1922, when I was 14, the Turkish government systematically assassinated one and a half million of my countrymen — roughly one third of the population of Armenia — including most of the intelligentsia and leaders. Even today, 78 years later, the Turks still deny this took place.
Cruelty and torture were everywhere. One of my earliest memories was carrying food parcels to my two beloved uncles who had been torn from their homes and cast into prison by the Turks — for no reason other than they were Armenian. One uncle was a talented artist, a calligrapher who used to illuminate the Bible and the Koran. Eventually they were both thrown down a well and left to perish. There were many similar stories. I remember seeing pictures of beheaded intellectuals and Armenian leaders — these were the people the ‘Young Turks’ went after first.
In 1922 our family was allowed to flee. We had to leave everything behind. We were allowed to take nothing — we escaped only with our lives. We fled on foot — we weren’t allowed to travel by train, which would have taken only two days , instead we journeyed with a Bedouin caravan. The journey to Syria took a month. My parents lost every valuable they managed to save to pay off people along the way. My father’s last silver coin was used to rescue me after I was caught foolishly making a sketch of a pile of human sculls — the last bitter landmark of my country.
I found it hard to relate the words of the dapper little man sitting in front of me — a man who had rubbed shoulders with and photographed the rich and famous, the politicians and personalities from the worlds of acting and the arts for the past 60 years — to his disastrous past. While Karsh was travelling by camel to Syria, Shmith was growing up in Victoria, 12,000 miles away. The son of a Cockney chemist and his Jewish wife, Athol had a happy childhood — surrounded by loving parents and part of a family of three kids.
SHMITH: My father was a chemist — he invented the formula for ASPRO — which later became a multi-million concern after Nicholas bought him out. He could have made a fortune, but never did. I think he made 400 quid out of it! My father was a fine piano player and he instilled in me a great love of music. He also taught me how to play the piano although I always preferred the vibraphone — I bought the first Vibes in Australia.
I wasn’t a particularly good student at school, but I loved music. I played in the school orchestra and with some friends we formed a small jazz group — we were bloody awful but any chance to make some noise — well, we didn’t have to be asked twice! I really wanted to become a conductor. I remember I had a conductor's baton, which came with a set of records called ‘Music for Frustrated Conductors’! I would wait until no one was about, turn up Mozart and Mahler or Beethoven and conduct away to my heart’s content — I did this for years!
Karsh had only a few years of formal education.
KARSH: My early education was primarily in the hands of my mother who was an educated woman and extremely well read — which was unusual in Armenia at that time. I attended a school in Aleppo in Syria for a couple of years after we escaped from Armenia.
Somehow my father managed to scrape together enough money to send me to America, to my Uncle Nakash — a photographer. I continued my education in the States for the next three years — which was difficult because I didn’t speak English — but it was over before it had really begun. Perhaps because of what I had seen, I always wanted to become a doctor but this was not to be.
SHMITH: I really had no intention of becoming a photographer — although I used a camera at school — I really wanted to become a conductor. My first job was in a factory making laxatives — something my father found for me. No experience in life is wasted and I guess I gained some valuable knowledge that was useful later on when dealing with advertising agencies! Meanwhile, I maintained my interest in photography and one day my father got me an assignment through a friend of his who made ball bearings.
Sixty years down the track and much had changed in the fortunes of these two men.
I remembered the Château Laurier where Karsh lived and worked. Built in 1884 and named after the first French-speaking premier of Canada, it reminded me of a pretentious chateau on the Rhine. It had heavily ornate, sumptuous rooms connected by wide corridors, hideous carpet punctuated here and there by alternating busts in white marble on mahogany plinths, and tired-looking pots of aspidistra and palms.
One expected to encounter the obligatory suit of armour around the next corner — it seemed an incongruous backdrop for the pugnacious Karsh, who had started off in such desperate surroundings. I felt this was a heritage earned, rather than one inherited.
The home of Athol Shmith was in complete contrast.
If one recalls the fashion pictures and portraits of Athol Shmith from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, it’s not hard to imagine the dapper young photographer, driving around Melbourne in his black MG — the first one in Australia. In comparison with Karsh, Athol Shmith lived a privileged life, in a fantasy world filled with beautiful socialite women, celebrities and elegance and light.
I first met Athol in 1986. The front door of his tiny duplex apartment in South Yarra opened bringing me face-to-face with a neatly groomed man wearing a well-cut jacket and slacks. I was instantly reminded of a 1950s picture of a gently stooping Athol by Helmut Newton, with whom he once shared a studio.
I entered his home. Gone at once was my fantasy. The imagined light and elegance was replaced by dark timber, concrete brick walls painted a sombre mustard colour, dingy lighting and dark furniture — lighting so low I couldn’t get a reading on my light meter. Why were the 1970s such an ugly period in Australian architectural design?
Shmith’s major influences in photography were music and his father — who didn’t discourage him from following a musical career, but definitely did encourage him to tackle photography assignments for his friends.
Shmith’s love of music and photography were equal. His arms would move about like a conductor as he would speak of conducting a photography assignment, or the need for composition and symphony in a photograph. He would argue for movement and scale and pitch in a print. He would try to explain to colleagues the relevance of counterpoint and contrasts, of scales and tonal ranges. He invariably played classical music while he was working and watching him work has been described by some to be like watching a ballet.
Athol would be moved into making a photograph.
SHMITH: There’s an interesting parallel to be made between photography and music. In the history of music, it is the composer who will be remembered. I wonder how many performers have played Beethoven’s Fifth since he wrote it? I wonder how many performers will be remembered a hundred years from now?
With photography the opposite is true.
It will be the image that is remembered — long after the photographer’s name has been forgotten. When we talk about Eddie Adams’ picture of the Vietnamese General shooting the Viet Cong in the head, we talk about the picture not about Eddie. In the case of photography we always talk about the score — seldom about the composer.
There were three major influences in the life of Karsh. The first was his mother who instilled in him the value of tolerance and determination. PerhapsKarsh’s instinctive desire to show human greatness in terms of social contribution — rather than destruction — was a way of restoring a balance to the world of his early childhood. His mother’s philosophy of ’always turn the other cheek’ would certainly have found fertile ground in the mind of the young Karsh. The second influence was his mentor and fellow Armenian John H. Garo, a portrait photographer in Boston, to whom Karsh was apprenticed.
KARSH: Garo was a wise counsellor. He encouraged me to attend evening classes in art and to study the work of the great masters, especially Rembrandt and Velázquez. I never learned how to draw or paint but I did absorb a fair amount about lighting, composition and design.
The third major influence on Karsh’s life, and the one that probably determined his distinctive repetitive photographic style, was his love of the theatre. In his early days in Ottawa, Karsh had few friends and welcomed an invitation to join the Ottawa Little Theatre, an enthusiastic group of amateur players.
KARSH: The experience of photographing actors with artificial light overwhelmed me. Working with daylight in Garo’s studio one had to wait — sometimes for hours — for the light to be right. With artificial lighting, moods could be created, modified, intensified. A whole new world was opened to me.
It was perhaps this influence of ‘stage lighting’ that so profoundly determined Karsh’s photographic style. Many of his best-loved images — for example the portraits of Hemmingway and Khrushchev appear to have been made in his studio, but in fact were made on location.
KARSH: My portable lights gave me the freedom to work away from Ottawa. Any room in the world where I could set up my lights and camera — from BuckinghamPalace to a Zulu kraal — became my studio.
One is forced to ask why anyone would travel all the way to Key West or Moscow and return with an image that appears to have been made in a studio in Boston!
Photographing Karsh was a nightmare! Perhaps when a person has lived through a disastrous childhood like his, it becomes impossible to let go — to hand control over to someone else.
Photographing Athol was a breeze. I photographed Athol in his cluttered office on the mezzanine floor. How he managed to cram a large desk and all his other junk into a space 1.8 metres square is hard to imagine — until one realises there is very little of Athol’s photography still in existence.
In a manner of speaking, this tiny space was the personification of all that remained of his 50 years as a photographer. While his peers — Dupain, Cato and others — meticulously filed and numbered every job they photographed, Athol believed his old commercial negatives were of no particular value and he trashed them all.
Fortunately, an enlightened Gael Newton discovered a pile of them in 1970 in a garden shed belonging to one of Athol’s old students — the filmmaker Paul Cox. ’I shovelled them into a suitcase,’ (her words, not mine), ’and took them to the National Library and the Art Gallery of New South Wales’.
The pictures reproduced in his two books were rescued from these suitcases, boxes in people’s garages, private collections, and a few — a very few — from the photographer himself.
Athol pointed to a framed picture of Judy Garland hanging on a wall.
SHMITH: That’s my all time favourite picture! Such a sad picture. I couldn’t bring myself to make a final print. I destroyed the negative right after I made the work print — that’s the work print up there. I couldn’t tear it up, but I did score it [the negative] and threw it away once I saw the work print. Technically it’s lousy. It’s over contrasty. It’s not even sharp. Everything’s wrong. Now why is it that everything can be wrong with a picture and yet everything can be right?
It was a depressing moment — Garland was drunk and had kept the audience waiting for over an hour. It makes me depressed looking at it. She was abusing me at that moment for taking the picture. Yet, when she started singing, it was magic!
Garland never saw the picture — it seemed an invasion into her life.
I was very fortunate. Starting in the 1930’s I had a contract with the ABC to photograph visiting celebrities. I had no idea at the time just how fortunate I was! They would phone up and ask me to photograph Thomas Beecham, or Malcolm Sargeant, or H. G. Wells, or whoever — mind you, I had a similar contract with J. C. Williamson who brought out people like Yehudi Menuhin. I was bloody lucky, I had no competition! I did ‘aunty’s’ publicity work for nearly 30 years.
I wish those negatives existed today — just imagine the record that no longer exists!
Karsh hated being photographed. He immediately started organising me: how and where he wished to be photographed, what he should wear, which hat — he was already wearing a beautifully tailored suit and tie. ‘The light is beautiful at the moment! We should talk as we walk because if you leave it too late, it won’t be as good. We will do the shot in ten minutes outside Parliament House. This tie OK? Do you like this hat?’ He held up battered felt Trilby, "’Or this one?"’ This time a natty black one. He tried on both, all the while checking the results in a mirror. He made the decision. Natty was better.
‘It’s three degrees outside.’ The final touch was a hideous long coat made from dead animals. ‘I’ll give you a 15-minute start and follow you — I don’t want to stand around while you decide what you want me to do.’ To Jerry Fielder, his assistant: ’Take him to the archway — there’s a view of Parliament House through the archway. We’ll do the shot there.’
The last thing I needed was another picture of a photographer standing in an archway. But I said nothing. Leaving Karsh in his studio, we set off up the hill.
The entrance driveway to Parliament House in Ottawa is designed like an inverted ‘U’, with buildings on three sides and a large open lawn in the middle. It was February and the lawn was covered in snow — not a footprint in sight.
I hate pre-conceiving images, but I thought it would be terrific if the old man’s footsteps appeared in the top left-hand corner of my picture and led towards my camera — about 100 yards away. The old man arrived. He agreed. ‘But I have the wrong shoes!’ This to his long-suffering assistant, ‘I need my boots — my black leather boots. Go back to the studio and fetch them. Meanwhile he can photograph me here under this archway.’
The bloody archway again! Controlling, always controlling.
Stiff and awkward in front of the camera, I moved him about as much as I dared, but there was no subtlety of movement and he was as stubborn as an ancient mule. I wondered if this was simply the behaviour of an ‘Old Chooker’ or something to do with his sudden loss of being ‘in control’.
I was determined not to photograph Karsh as he wanted. At that moment, two spunky women walked past and he started being cheeky to them. He turned away from me to talk to them. Now in profile to me, he momentarily forgot all about me as he watched them pass out of sight.
He suddenly seemed small and insignificant and lost in thought.
It’s extraordinary what one notices in moments such as these. I remember thinking how huge his nose was and how it seemed to have the same texture as his coat — all lumpy and shapeless. I tilted the camera up to reinforce the sensation of insignificance and make the concrete around him more overpowering. I have no idea what he was musing about. He never said. The moment lasted only a moment, but long enough to make a few exposures before he turned back to me and started to tell me what to do again.
While there is only a limited collection of Athol Shmith’s work still in existence, Karsh left the world with an astounding record of the rich and famous over the past 60 years. His was a way of making pictures that flattered the subject, so they felt comfortable posing for him. Being photographed by Karsh became an entry fee to an exclusive club where your credentials were endorsed by the other great and famous people who had already been before his lens. A Karsh portrait became, if you like, the final accolade of recognition from the world stage.
After the success of his 1941 portrait of Churchill, Karsh never had a shortage of subjects; indeed, being photographed by him became — as one critic has described it — ‘a badge of honour’.
We are now a different generation of photographers. We live in an unflattering world filled with fear and exaggerated rhetoric. We have come to the uncomfortable realisation that Australia can no longer have an island mentality — protected and isolated. We have begun to realise that if we wish to become a part of the World Stage, we can also expect the occasional pratfall. We have discovered it is our inalienable right to question the platitudes of the politicians and religious leaders we once held in reverence.
When viewed in today’s sceptical light, Karsh’s work poses a few questions. These can only be answered on an individual basis — from our personal viewpoint and backgrounds as students of photography.
For example, is Karsh’s legacy to the world a collection of truly great photographs?
One definition of a portrait might be that it should give some insight into the person’s personality, life and character. In all honesty, what can we really tell about the people Karsh photographed that we didn’t already know from media, films and the like?
Would it be fair to say that while Shmith’s portraits may be ‘softer’, they also give us greater insight into the character of his subjects? Does the rawness of his Judy Garland picture, for example, make us understand her pain better — or would we still prefer to remember her through the glossy spectacles of a Hollywood illusion?
An illusion is, after all, in reality, a lie.
As another example, both Karsh and Shmith made portraits of Sir Laurence Olivier Image 1 Image 2. Both pictures were made in the classical style of the period. Both photographers used tungsten light. Both had Olivier holding something. Both photographed him over his left shoulder, looking from right to left. Why then does the Karsh picture look so soppy, uncomfortable and ‘mincing’, while the Shmith portrait seems to record an intelligent, strong and engaging actor?
Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the Karsh collection is a great record of the world’s celebrities — but is it really a collection of great photographs?
If every successful portrait is ‘some of them, and some of me’, would it be true to say that most of Karsh’s portraits are portraits of him — in that most of the lighting and posing are the same? How could this extraordinary collection of people all be the same?
We may feel we already know the celebrities Karsh photographed from what we have been exposed to in the media. Perhaps we love them. Perhaps we hate them — but why is it that we feel comfortable when we see them? Perhaps it’s a bit like discovering there’s someone else in the world that feels the same way about them as we do? When we look at his portraits, what are we judging? The personalities? His photography? Ourselves?
In 1992 Karsh told me, ‘It should be the aim of every photographer to make a single exposure that shows everything about the subject.’ After a pause, he added, ‘I have been told that my portrait of Churchill is an example of this.’
I confess, I find it impossible to accept that any single image can come close to representing everything about a person — even Karsh’s best-known image of Winston Churchill. I prefer instead the words of another great American portrait photographer, Arnold Newman, who in the same year said: ‘I am convinced that any photographic attempt to show the complete man is nonsense. We can only show, as best we can, what the outer man reveals. The inner man is seldom revealed to anyone, sometimes not even the man himself.’
However, on one point I do agree with Karsh: ‘When you photograph an Einstein, or a Helen Keller or a Hemmingway, or a Churchill, you are already a part of history. If your photograph is the summation of these persons’ many accomplishments, then the historical point of view is already fulfilled.’
Athol Shmith used to advise his students not to live by photography alone, but to explore all the arts. That’s also my philosophy. Photography is still the youngest of all the arts, and sometimes the most raw.
SHMITH: With good portrait work you must satisfy yourself. If you set out to satisfy your subject or your client, you’ll find yourself getting rid of all the bloody wrinkle lines. I always talk to my subjects before I make a shot. There’s an old trick called ‘doing the mahogany’ — where you pretend to pull out the slide and then people would stiffen up. You’d pretend to make an exposure and then you’d pull the slide when they aren’t expecting it and then make your exposure.
I can’t make portraits before an audience. I can do advertising shots before an audience. The more the merrier! The whole damn Victorian advertising club can be there for all I care! But not with a portrait. For a portrait I need to be by myself.
I have no regrets about the work I did — except that I didn’t keep negatives. It’s no big thing — what’s the use? If I started worrying abut it I’d become melancholy! They’ve gone — but it was one hell of an experience while I was doing it.
Of the millions of images that will be made today and tomorrow, few will stand the test of time. If photography is all about capturing tiny moments of time then perhaps time itself will be photography’s only true critic. Shmith and Karsh may have given us a romanticised view of ourselves — perhaps a view that was not totally honest, in that at the time they were made, we may not have been ready for the cold hard facts of reality — but certainly a view that will be remembered.
Peter Adams poses a number of questions and personal responses to the portraits in the exhibition the good, the great and the gifted. Attached are some points for discussion.
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