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He achieved fame by shooting the famous

‘Karsh Is History’ looks at iconic photographer

Self-portrait of Yousuf Karsh. Self-portrait of Yousuf Karsh. (Estate of Yousuf Karsh/Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / September 1, 2011

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Yousuf Karsh, photographer of some of the great faces and personalities of the 20th century, is beloved by many and derided by some - the Annie Leibovitz of his day. A master of theatrical lighting, Karsh often created portraits that used light to sculpt his subjects from a backdrop of darkness, a technique that played up their solidity and their glory.

In Karsh’s hands, movie stars were more glamorous, statesmen more dignified and visionary, and geniuses sharper and more eccentric. A publicist’s dream, Karsh gave us what we wanted, and we loved it. He was a brilliant artisan of artifice.

“Karsh Is History: Yousuf Karsh and Portrait Photography’’ is a thoughtful, briskly paced biography, airing on WGBH (Channel 2) tonight. Director Joseph Hillel does not shy away from Karsh’s romance with fame. When asked if he wanted to be rich, or famous, Karsh is said to have replied, “Famous, of course.’’ He got what he wanted, and not simply because he knew what he was doing with lights, cameras, and film. He was courteous and, we’re told, impossible to say no to.

Born in Armenia in 1908 and raised during the persecution and genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Turk empire, Karsh and his family escaped first to Syria, and ultimately, when he was 17, to Canada, where he apprenticed to his photographer uncle. He studied in Boston for three years with portrait photographer John H. Garo, then set up his own studio in Ottawa. His work caught the eye of Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and that was his entrée to the political sphere.

The story behind his 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill is legendary, and Hillel lets many tell it, including Karsh’s assistant, photographer Peter Miller. The British prime minister gave Karsh two minutes to take his picture. He seemed to resent the imposition, and stood there with his cigar between his teeth, scowling. Karsh plucked the cigar from his mouth; Churchill looked even angrier. That’s when Karsh shot his prize: A portrait, it could be argued, that the Allies needed at that moment, one that conveyed Churchill’s leonine ferocity. Karsh became famous.

Magazines such as Life and Paris Match, which told stories largely in photographs, were, along with newspapers, the Internet of the day - the source people turned to learn about what was going on in the world. Karsh took a European tour, shooting the intelligentsia, such as Pablo Casals and Pablo Picasso. He would develop his 8x10 negatives in hotel closets. “He had to impress those people that he was just not a photographer,’’ Miller says, “but he was a person on their stature, an artist.’’

Hillel makes clever use of photographic devices. Karsh’s images appear on screen with the click of a shutter. Others stream along in strips, as on contact sheets, and still others flip by like a slide show. The film moves along sprightly, touching on his two marriages (his second wife, Estrellita Karsh, is interviewed), but “Karsh Is History’’ mainly examines the photographer as portraitist.

Portraiture has always been tricky. Subject and viewer alike want their expectations met. When it comes to famous subjects, the artist adds to his palette all the projections society throws at celebrities and politicians - visions and desires that the famous actively nurture. Like a court painter, Karsh saw the icons in his subjects and gave them even more definition in his photos. Viewers who look for deeper revelations in portraits may find that unsavory, but fame and its exigencies are elemental to our society. I expect Andy Warhol, who sat for Karsh, would have wholeheartedly approved.

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com.

KARSH IS HISTORY: Yousuf Karsh and Portrait Photography On: WGBH, Channel 2

Time: Tonight, 9-10