Thirteen images of Yousuf Karsh, the photographer:
He points to his portrait of Ernest Hemingway, originally shot for Life magazine. Which is to say the standard photograph of Hemingway, staring off to the left, his throat circled by a thick turtleneck sweater. It is Karsh's second most famous picture, the first being the one of Winston Churchill. He will get to that one later.
"I went to Cuba to photograph Hemingway in 1957," says Karsh. "I had done my homework. I always do my homework. This is very important in taking portraits. Someone had told me all you need to do to understand this great man is enjoy his favorite cocktail -- the daiquiri -- at the club La Floradita. I go there the night before I am to meet him. I have the first drink. It is very good. I have the second drink. It is even better. I hear gunfire. I think maybe I am drunk -- I have never had this drink before. Then I realize they are shooting real bullets outside. I fall down to the floor. I call the Canadian ambassador. He comes to fetch me in his car.
"The next morning the Canadian ambassador and the American ambassador call Hemingway at about a quarter to nine. They say, 'Now Ernest, Karsh is here.' He says for them to bring me over. I walk into the house and he calls out from the kitchen, 'Karsh, what will you have to drink?' I have done my homework. 'A daiquiri,' I say.
"And he says, 'Good God, man! At this hour of the morning?' "
Karsh is fidgeting in the Lunn Gallery, where he will be this afternoon for a public reception from 5 to 7. Here's the problem: a photographer wants to make a portrait of Karsh, who at 72 is probably the most renowned portraitist in contemporary photography. Karsh has some pretty firm ideas about the medium. The photographer wants to snap a few Polaroids of Karsh, and then have Karsh hold them in front of his face for the main exposure: a portrait of a portraitist within a portrait. You get the picture.
Karsh says no: "Too much like a commercial." He has done a commercial for Polaroid himself, an SX-70 of Karen Magnussen, a crippled woman who became a figure-skating champion. "We put her in a salmon-colored gown of George Stavropoulos and she was a symphony of color, a symbol of will and tenacity. I am associated with this Polaroid commercial. So I prefer not to do something with Polaroids."
Karsh is of the charm school of the old world: born in Turkish Armenia, his family moved to Syria when he was 14 after he watched Christian relatives massacred by the Moslem Turks. "It made me want to be diplomatic for my remaining years." This by way of indicating that he does not like to say no to this photographer.
So Karsh has a counter offer. There is KARSH, From C1 this hat, a little black hat that he generally wears. He proffers that it would add a bit of zip to the image. But the hat is not at the gallery. "No problem," he says. "I will send for it." And with this said, he continues to wander around the gallery, an impish grin on his deep-featured face and a twinkle in the eyes that have studied many of the rich, famous and powerful.
On the wall is a portrait of George Bernard Shaw, leaning back in a chair, his pince-nez poised in his right hand, his facial expression just on the verge of a chuckle. "I made this in 1943," says Karsh. "He was the most scintillating man I ever met. Extreme wit. He was an able photographer himself who dabbled in the process of platinum. He said to me afterward, 'That was a remarkable photograph you made, but I must confess not as good as the likeness of me I see when I look in a mirror.'
"Ah, now here is Helen Keller. I made this in her room at the Barclay Hotel on March 17, St. Patrick's Day, 1948. I was waiting for her at the Algonquin Hotel where I was staying and suddenly had this awful feeling that she might get caught in traffic. A police officer took me to look for her, and while we were looking she arrived. She was with Katharine Cornell. Katharine took me aside and said, 'Yousuf, when I introduce you it will be very emotional because she will want to touch your lips and your vocal chords because that is the way she photographs a person.' I told her I knew her through her work -- something she had written for Reader's Digest called 'How to Appreciate the Beauties of Sunset.' It was one of the first things I had read in the English language. I said to her, 'Now that I am in the beauty of your presence, I think not of sunset but of sunrise.' She said, 'How I wish the leaders of the world would take that as their motto -- sunrise, not sunset, and leave all darkness behind.' Of all the people I have photographed, she was one of the rarest creatures. This is one of my three favorite images, along with Casals and Einstein."
One photograph not hanging in the show is a romantic Victorian landscape snapped by young Karsh shortly after his parents packed him off to Sherbrooke, Canada, to live with his mother's brother. Uncle Nakash gave the young boy a Kodak Brownie, and Karsh recalls: "I took a photograph of children playing in a pastoral scene and made a beautiful print and gave it to a schoolmate. He entered it in a photo competition under his name and he won first prize, which was 50 gold pieces. He gave me the money. I gave him 10 and sent 40 off to my family. At age 15 my lifetime had begun. I had always wanted to be a physician, but now it seemed obvious that I would be a photographer."
After two years of high school, Uncle Nakash sent Karsh off to Boston to study with the photographer John Garo, another Armenian. Garo was a portrait photographer who shot with available light, which meant in Boston that all work ground to a halt at 4 p.m. "Garo would hold salons from 4 to 6 in the evening, and I came to love the conversation of interesting people. This was during the Prohibition, and he would mix up bootleg liquor and label it as if it were chemicals for photo solutions. He would say, 'Here is Mr. So and So, go get him some nitric acid.' " After a few years, Karsh moved to Ottowa, and in 1933 opened his present photographic studio.
Now he is standing before the big break, Winston Churchill:
"This photograph was made on Dec. 13, 1941," he says. Karsh is a remarkable raconteur, all of it steeped in a wonderful French accent, the hands moving about as if he is orchestrating his images. And it is obvious that there is still a great deal of respect for this particular portrait. He stands farther back from it than he stands from the others. "One of the most published portraits of all time. It appeared on nine postage stamps," he says.
"This was the one that changed things around. I had the good fortune to meet the prime minister of Canada. I was working as a photojournalist, and I got a call from the prime minister: 'Karsh, come to the House of Commons and set up in the speaker's chambers to make a picture of Churchill.' I practiced with someone who looked like Churchill from the neck down. I had perhaps four minutes with him. He was scowling. I made one exposure. I took the cigar from his mouth. He scowled more. That was perfect. Afterwards, he said to me, 'You can make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.' Years later my wife and I visited Holland. We stayed at the Hotel Wasenar. It had been the German headquarters during the war. The bartender was allowed to stay on. He's still there. He said to me, 'You would have been pleased to know that as soon as the photograph appeared, it was hung on the door of one officer with a caption reading, "This man is a great leader." ' "
Paging through his autobiography, "In Search of Greatness," Karsh comes across a photo of himself with the great travel writer H.V. Morton.
"A strange man," Karsh says. "One time he was being interviewed and he was asked:
" 'What are your hobbies?'
" 'I give sharp razors to children to play with.' "
Karsh was recently in France, just before the elections, to shoot the candidates for Paris Match. Mitterrand asked to be photographed in his attic, which became rather crowded by the time all of Karsh's lights and his 8x10 view camera arrived.
"Monsieur Mitterrand," says Karsh, "I hope when I meet my creator I have more space than you give me."
And Mitterrand, ever the socialist, replies: "Ah, Karsh, you always have your eye on the future."
On the wall, his portrait of Robert Frost: the poet gesturing with his right hand, petting his dog with his left.
"He was telling me that good fences make good neighbors. The dog wanted to be part of the picture. Believe me, they know these things. It wasn't Frost; it was the dog."
Not on the wall: Chairman Mao. "He was the only person I ever really wanted to photograph and didn't have a chance to."
Actually, almost anybody can have Karsh make their portrait. The cost now is in the vicinity of $5,000. Karsh will not discuss this. For $5, anybody can hear him lecture at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater tomorrow at 3 p.m. He is the second photographer to lecture there in 10 years. The first was his friend Ansel Adams.
On the wall: Peter Lorre. "1946," says Karsh. "He was always very ghoulish in his roles. You enter his house and there is a big sign that says, 'BEWARE OF DOG.' You get inside and there is a little Pomeranian. That is the story of Peter Lorre."
Picture Karsh, in France, about to photograph Pope John Paul II. It is pouring rain. The photographer is soaked. "Take photographs first," counsels Karsh. "Wipe your brow afterwards."
They climb in a helicopter together.
"My, you do tough work," says the pope.
And, pointing to himself, the pope adds, "So do I."
Picture Karsh, in Houston, photographing the first men to fly to the moon.
"Tell me about Canada," says Neil Armstrong.
"But you've been to the moon," says Karsh.
"I've never been anywhere else," says Armstrong.
The black hat has arrived at the gallery. Karsh puts it on his head. He doesn't have to look in a mirror: He knows the lay of the land, and almost immediately and instinctively steps into the photographer's frame in exactly the right place.
A light is adjusted. The lens is focused. A film pack is slid into the back of the view camera.
Karsh stands there, and stares into the camera.
"Take your time," he says.
"I know how you feel."