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The Vision of Yousuf Karsh
and his Photographs of the Illustrious Greats of Japan

There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit may be reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record. This is the elusive ‘moment of truth’.
Yousuf Karsh 1

Photographer for 60 years to the famous, the powerful and the talented, Yousuf Karsh’s own eminent position in society was acknowledged in 1999 when International Who’s Who chose him as one of the hundred most influential figures of the 20th century — and the only photographer. Of the other 99 so honoured, Karsh had photographed over half.

Yousuf Karsh Winston Churchill 1941 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
Yousuf Karsh
Winston Churchill
1941 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

The consummate professional, Karsh has been described as ‘a final link to the vision and style of nineteenth-century studio photographers’. 2 The seminal influence on his development as a photographer was John H. Garo, in whose studio in Boston Karsh served an apprenticeship from 1928–30 before setting up his own establishment in Ottawa in 1932. Karsh particularly admired Garo’s meticulous, hard-working and businesslike approach, and was in awe of his rapport with his clients, his ability to put them at ease.

From this empathetic position, Karsh believed that it was possible to capture something essential about the people he photographed, something that summed them up. What would be summed up though? He was acutely aware of the position in history of his famous subjects, and his own role: ‘How can you possibly photograph an Einstein or a Helen Keller, or Eleanor Roosevelt, a Hemingway or a Churchill, and not realize they are already part of history’. 3

What Karsh creates are heroes for our time. His subjects become embodiments of archetypal abstract ideals of goodness and greatness. He sets them apart. They are conduits between the material world and the world of pure thought. A devout catholic, Karsh truly desired to record the soul of his subjects. What he wants to sum up are their achievements in the world of mankind, achievements gained through genius, but also through hard work and with a sense of moral responsibility.

Roland Barthes has commented that ‘the great portrait photographers are great mythologists,’ 4 and it is here that the secret of Karsh’s success lies. Intuitively Karsh was a brilliant interpreter and author of the stories the public needed to hear. His photographs first became popular in a world torn apart by war, and he became famous in the climate of Cold War tensions and a world increasingly capable of self-destruction. In the face of this Karsh creates a world of certainty and hope. The guys running the show he assures his public are the good guys. His photograph of John F. Kennedy, for example, emphasises a spirituality that possibly few other people would have intuited. Even the guys on the other side are OK really. Nikita Krushchev is seen as some jolly Nanook of the North. Karsh says: ‘here is the face of the eternal peasant, perhaps the collective portrait of a great people’. 5 Little to fear.

Yousuf Karsh Joan Baez 1970 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
Yousuf Karsh
Joan Baez 1970 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

His photograph of the singer Joan Baez provides another interesting insight into the way in which Karsh chooses to see people and ultimately the world. How does he portray this feisty political activist? Essentially as a latter day saint, her gaze demurely averted, holding a cluster of lilac. Photographing members of the counter-establishment Karsh discovered that ‘while they were young in years, there was about each a deep sense of responsibility and concern and response to the world’. 6 Little to fear here either.

Karsh’s vision of the world is relentlessly optimistic. It has been convincingly argued that such an obsessive desire to see good in others stems from his childhood experiences. Born in Mardin, in Armenia-in-Turkey, at age seven he witnessed atrocities as the Turks systematically attempted to force out the Armenian people. Two of his uncles were killed, thrown down a well, and he finally had to flee with his family to Syria taking nothing with him. At fifteen he was sent alone to Canada to his uncle George Nakash, a successful photographer at Sherbrooke, Quebec. But instead of a pessimistic resignation or bitterness, Karsh chose to see good everywhere; and, after such a torrid time, he would take control of everything.

Karsh spent much of his life travelling, photographing famous people all over the world,7 and it should be no surprise that he was drawn to Japan at the end of the 1960s. As a country it embodied the ideals he consistently put forward — through hard work Japan had risen phoenix-like from the ashes of defeat; it revered its great men for their talent; it honoured tradition but was still able to take its place in the quest of mankind toward a better future. A country where the attainment of a refined and controlled aesthetic beauty matters. A country where form and appearances are of outmost importance. All this could not have been closer to Karsh’s heart.

The world was forced to take notice of Japan as a new economic power on the world stage, and Expo ’70 was held in Osaka (with Karsh as photographic adviser). Japanese achievers were given international recognition, being awarded a number of Nobel Prizes — though not for the first time. In 1949 the physicist Hideki Yukawa became the first Japanese to win a Nobel Prize; in 1968 the novelist Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature; and the physicist Shinichiro Tomonaga also received his Nobel Prize in the 1960s (in 1965).

Since 1950, however, the Japanese themselves had formalised the recognition of distinction by awarding those who were ‘Bearers of Important Intangible Cultural Assets’ (Juyo Mukei Bunkazai Hojisha) with the designation of ‘Living National Treasures’ (Ningen Kokuho).8 Karsh travelled around Japan in 1969 photographing these people ‘treasured by the entire nation’9 in preparation for an exhibition of his photographs that toured Japan in 1970. He also photographed those responsible for leading Japan to economic success.

If Karsh was clearly enamoured of Japan, the feeling was mutual. His exhibition at Expo ’67 in Montreal, Men Who Make Our World, was bought in its totality by the Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, along with the National Gallery of Australia.

Although Karsh travelled around the world photographing his subjects in their own milieux, his working method allowed him to end up with an almost startlingly consistent result. Early in his career he had been influenced by the lighting employed in the theatre, and he worked always with portable studio lights and large format cameras — lugging 350 pounds of equipment wherever he went. He made the world as much his own domain, and as much under his control, as if he had stayed at home in his studio. While travel freed him from the studio, he was able to remain essentially a studio photographer.

The theatrical and dramatic lighting of his portrait of the liberal politician Yukio Ozaki is often employed by Karsh. Figures appear as if cast from stone, monumentalised and static. Light reveals; and, symbolic of divine light, is often haloed out behind the sitter’s head — contemporary saints. The mood can be sombre, bordering the oppressive.

Yousuf Karsh Yukio Ozaki 1950 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
Yousuf Karsh
Yukio Ozaki 1950 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

In his portrait of Ozaki, as well as that of Roppeita Kita, Karsh includes young aides who are there to assist their masters, introducing a mood of tenderness and gentleness. The young girl in the portrait of Ozaki (photographed on an earlier visit to Japan in 1950) leans forward to whisper something into his ear. During the sitting, the grandson of the great Roppeita Kita shouted directions (though in the most respectful way, as Karsh notes in his commentary) to the 95-year-old old Kita10 — one of the most eminent contemporary Noh actors whose unbroken lineage dates back to the late 16th century. All the roles in Noh are played by men. Kita’s most famous role was that of the celestial being, or shite, in Hagoromo (The Feather Robe) who descends from heaven to dance for a fisherman who has found her lost robe.

Moments of such inspiration do free Karsh’s work from cliché and formulaic repetitiveness which he falls into perhaps when the sitter buckles under the pressure of having to take their place in the Karsh pantheon. In his portraits of Japanese people this does not occur. In a world where to be almost deified for one’s achievement seems natural, his sitters seem either indifferent to Karsh’s vision or comfortable with it. There is an uncharacteristic lightness of touch and mood in his Japanese work and I sense a real feeling of empathy. His portrait of the physicist Hideki Yukawa is one of the few I have seen in which the sitter is laughing. Rarely do Karsh’s subjects look like they are having such a good time. Earnestness rather than joie de vivre is Karsh’s usual mode of expression.

Yousuf Karsh Yasunari Kawabata 1969 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
Yousuf Karsh
Yasunari Kawabata
1969 Collection of the National Gallery of Australia

Karsh uses the power and recognisable language of gesture to give his audience clues as to how to read his images. He frequently focuses in on the hands of the subject: ‘hands give clues to the entire personality of the subject’s moods, attitude, tension. They are, for me, almost a barometer of a person’s being, a distillation of the whole.’11 It is to Kita’s hands that my eyes return in the portrait; so affected by extreme age, there is a reminder of the transitory nature of time. There is restraint rather than the hyperbole of other portraits where the gesture of the hands may appear contrived and empty.

Hands are also prominent but subtle in the portrait of the Japanese writer, Yasunari Kawabata. The hands gently cradling his face, the eyes reflective, this is a fitting portrayal of a man who devoted the later part of his career to writing what he called elegies (fittingly he is shown with a piece from his extensive collection of Haniwa, early Japanese funerary pottery). Here is a person after Karsh’s own heart — Karsh commenting that Kawabata’s ‘simple literary images linked together produce sudden, profound insight into his characters’ souls’.12 Precisely matching of course what Karsh hoped to accomplish. As always, he looked at his subject and chose to see there the qualities he most admired.

Yousuf Karsh was able to find in Japan and the Japanese people a mirror of his own vision of humanity. The Japanese have a notion of the ‘kami’ or spirit of things; to know the kami of something is to understand its true nature,
its essence. Such notions are close to Karsh’s own statements of what he hoped to achieve in his photographs, though he termed it the soul or the elusive ‘moment of truth’. Japan struck a deep emotional chord in Yousuf Karsh, leading to a profound admiration and appreciation of a culture. Some of the most inspired and moving images of his career were the result.

Anne O’Hehir
Assistant Curator, Photography
National Gallery of Australia

All photographs are gelatin silver and in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia. The quotes from Karsh were to accompany the photographs when they were exhibited. Reproduction courtesy of the Karsh Estate.

1 Quoted in Colin Naylor (ed.), Contemporary Photographers, 2nd edn, Chicago and London: St James Press, 1988, p. 524.
2 Mary Pancer, ‘What makes a photographer great?’ in Dieter Vorsteher and Janet Yates (eds), Yousuf Karsh: Heroes of light and shadow, New York: Stoddart Publishing Co., 2000, p. 218.
3 James Danziger and Barnaby Conrad III, Interviews with Master Photographers, New York and London: Paddington Press, 1977, p. 105.
4 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Richard Howard (trans.), New York: Hill and Weng, 1981, p. 34.
5 Yousuf Karsh, Karsh Portraits, Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1976, p. 98.
6 Ibid., p. 26.
7 Even travelling around Canada filled Karsh with wonder. His wife, Solange, recounted that in 1952 during an assignment for Macleans to photograph the country ‘both of us were as excited and starry-eyed as a couple of babes in the woods … and this attitude remained with us throughout our year long travel’. Jill Delaney, ‘Karsh and the face of Canada’ in Vorsteher and Yates (eds), Yousuf Karsh: Heroes of light and shadow (2000), p. 189.
8 Kodansha Encyclopedia of Japan, Tokyo: Kodansha, 1983, p. 60.
9 Karsh, Karsh Portraits (1976), p. 86.
10 Ibid., p. 106.
11 Karsh, Karsh: A fifty-year retrospective, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983, p. 85.
12 Karsh, Karsh Portraits (1976), p. 86.
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