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On Assignment: Karsh 100 exhibit at the MFA

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  December 29, 2008 05:49 PM

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Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn / 1956 photo by Yousuf Karsh / Gelatin silver print
Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

By Michael Merline

As you enter the "Karsh 100: A Biography in Images" exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, you will see Yousuf Karsh's photography equipment, which includes his camera on a tripod, the camera case, and his hat on the case -- as though you are in his studio for a portrait sitting. And as you stroll through this studio/exhibit, you will see many of his famous (and infamous) subjects who posed in front of this very same camera.

Yousuf Karsh was born in Mardin, Armenia, on Dec. 23, 1908 (100 years ago this month). He arrived in Canada in 1925 and his Uncle George Nakash, a photographer, was waiting for him in Ottawa. Karsh worked in his uncle's studio in the summer of 1926. Shortly after that first summer in the studio, his uncle arranged for an apprenticeship for Karsh with fellow Armenian John H. Garo, a portrait photographer in Boston.

Karsh left Boston in 1931 and returned to Ottawa, where he opened a photography studio. One of his first portraits was of Franklin Delano Roosevelt when he visited Canada in 1936. His best known portrait is Winston Churchill; Karsh photographed him in 1941 when Churchill visited Ottawa. It is said to be one of the most reproduced photos in the world.

Winston Churchill.jpg
Winston Churchill / 1941 photo by Yousuf Karsh / Gelatin silver print
Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

This portrait makes one wonder what Karsh said to the prime minister or what Churchill was thinking to produce the distinctive arched eyebrow and frown. In his career, Karsh had 15,312 opportunities (the number of portrait sittings he recorded) to meet many people and get many expressions that became permanently recorded for the world to see.

Among the luminaries he photographed were George Bernard Shaw, the British royal family, Ansel Adams, Albert Einstein, J. Edgar Hoover, Judy Garland, Helen Keller, US Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Henry Kissinger and Mother Teresa.

George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw / Photo by Yousuf Karsh
Courtesy of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Other works in the exhibit include commercial photography, placed against a back wall -- almost to signify that Karsh's success lay not in his commercial work, but his outstanding portraits.

Karsh retired in 1997 and returned to Boston with his wife Estrellita. He passed away in 2002. His widow still resides in Boston, and is involved with philanthropic causes including the MFA, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and other charities.

Karsh 100: A Biography in Images
Through Monday, Jan. 19
Museum of Fine Arts
Avenue of the Arts
465 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115

(Sources used for this essay include the Yousuf Karsh website and this Globe feature story on Estrellita Karsh.)


You can see some of author Michael Merline's photos at his SmugMug account.

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