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Karsh 100: A Biography in Images Brings into Focus the Iconic Photography of Yosuf Karsh
Yousuf Karsh, Ford of Canada (surgeons), 1951.

BOSTON.- The legacy of Yousuf Karsh—the man behind the lens of some of the 20th century’s most famous photographic portraits—is illuminated as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), presents Karsh 100: A Biography in Images. The exhibition of more than 100 works celebrating the 100th anniversary of Karsh’s birth (1908) presents his iconic portraits of the era’s most illustrious faces alongside rarely seen earlier photographs and little-known work. Karsh 100 will be on view September 23, 2008, through January 19, 2009, in the Rabb Gallery at the MFA. This exhibition is generously supported by the Government of Canada through the Consulate General of Canada in Boston.

“Yousuf Karsh had a special relationship with the MFA and Boston ever since his apprenticeship in the city in the late 1920s,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “He thought of Boston as his spiritual home and the Museum as his ‘university’ where he studied light, composition and shadow. We are privileged now to be the major repository in the United States for his magnificent photographs, and delighted to share them with our visitors on the 100th anniversary of his birth.”

The exhibition features a visual biography of the photographer, who died in 2002. In addition to Karsh’s well-known images of 20th -century heads of state, presidents, scientists, artists, writers, musicians, and actors, the exhibition highlights the photographer’s early work. Canadian vignettes, landscapes, moods of cities taken on assignment for Maclean’s magazine of Canada, and those commissioned by leading Canadian industries, lent by the Karsh Collection at the National Portrait Gallery of Canada, are included. Also on display are photographs taken by Karsh for Bishop Fulton J. Sheen’s book, This is Rome, and on location in South Africa for the 1963 movie “Zulu.” Personal letters, diaries, and photographs, and one of Karsh’s large-format (8 x 10”) studio cameras with lens, velvet cloth, and tripod, lent by the Canada Science and Technology Museum, give greater insight into his inner thoughts and method of working.

Karsh 100 features many of the photographer’s most renowned portraits, including Ernest Hemingway, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Winston Churchill. His portrait of Winston Churchill, taken during the British Prime Minister’s visit to Canada in December 1941, launched his 60-year career. The oft-told story of Karsh being granted two minutes to capture the essence of the impatient statesman—from whose mouth he “respectfully” plucked an ever-present cigar—is almost as familiar as the photograph itself. The outcome of that brief encounter is the bold and defiant portrait of a belligerent Churchill, which put a human face on the indomitable spirit of the British people during World War II. That image propelled Karsh onto the international scene. Photographing men and women of consequence in the world—the “giants of the earth,” as he described them—Karsh became the most sought-after portrait photographer of his time. “My desire was to photograph the great in spirit,” he wrote, “whether they be famous or humble.”

“Karsh’s name became synonymous with the highest level of photographic portraiture and being ‘Karshed’ was an honor for his sitters,” said Anne Havinga, Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Senior Curator of Photographs at the MFA, who curated the show. “This exhibition is intended to show the range of Yousuf Karsh’s work by including not only his famous portraits, but also the early efforts that led to the definition of his style and the special assignment work that he undertook once he had achieved international success. “Forty seven images—most in black and white—of the era’s celebrated personalities line the perimeter of the gallery walls. Featured among them are: heads of state—Dwight Eisenhower, Nikita Khrushchev, Ibn Abdul Aziz Faisal, and Fidel Castro; scientists—Albert Einstein, Jacques Cousteau, Albert Schweitzer, and Edward Teller; artists—Pablo Picasso, Mies van der Rohe, Ansel Adams, and Georgia O’Keeffe; writers—George Bernard Shaw, Helen Keller, Carl Sandburg, and W.H. Auden; musicians—Jean Sibelius, Jessye Norman, Pablo Casals, and Paul Robeson; and actors—Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Angela Lansbury, and Boris Karloff. A display of Karsh’s early photographs, featuring his experiments with portraiture and theatrical lighting; bucolic scenes of Canadian life for Maclean’s; and images promoting Canadian industry, will be mounted at the center of the gallery to show the breadth of Karsh’s vision. Consultant to the exhibition is Jerry Fielder, Curator and Director, Estate of Yousuf Karsh.

Archival materials in Karsh 100 provide a personal view of the man behind the velvet-draped studio camera, revealing insights into Karsh’s personality, his approach to his work, and his friendships with his subjects. Featured are reminiscences written by the photographer about his sittings with Churchill and King George VI of England, as well as the transcript of his recorded conversation with Albert Einstein after a 1948 portrait session. Video from Morley Safer’s 1977 “60 Minutes” interview with Yousuf Karsh also is included within the exhibition.

More than Karsh’s courtly manner, meticulous preparation, and professional demeanor was his ability to forge warm personal relationships with his subjects. The German artist Josef Albers gave Karsh his painting Homage to the Square: Stele and Foliage (1964); sculptor Jacques Lipchitz created Head of Yousuf Karsh (1970) in tribute; and sculptor Emilio Greco presented to Estrellita Karsh, the photographer’s wife, Head of Estrellita (1970), the bust for which he asked her to pose. All three of these works from Mrs. Karsh’s personal collection are included in the show, as are other special mementos, such as diaries with notations about appointments Karsh had in Washington, DC, and Hollywood with the famous and powerful; and a self portrait of Karsh near a birthday photograph of Mrs. Karsh, showing the private side of the man who lived in a very public world.

Karsh’s photographic style was influenced by his early experiences in Canada and an important sojourn in Boston. Born December 23, 1908, in Armenia-in-Turkey, Karsh spent his childhood under the horrors of the Armenian massacres. In 1925, he was brought to Canada by his uncle George Nakash, a photographer, traveling alone for 29 days in steerage from Aleppo, Syria, where his family sought refuge, to Sherbrooke, Quebec. At 20, he was apprenticed in Boston to the eminent photographer John H. Garo. At Garo’s urging, Karsh often visited the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to study the works of the great masters, and found there the artistic nourishment he treasured the rest of his life. In the humanistic atmosphere of Garo’s studio, Karsh learned not only natural light photography; meeting and listening to Garo’s accomplished friends inspired the fledgling photographer to want “to portray, to interpret, to record the human spirit, the human soul.”

In 1930, Karsh returned to Canada, and two years later, opened his own studio in Ottawa. During this period, as a member of the Ottawa Little Theater, while observing theatrical lighting, his discovery of the dramatic use of artificial light was a revelation. In 1941, having already achieved local renown, at the request of his patron, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, Karsh photographed Winston Churchill after his historic wartime speech before the combined Houses of Parliament. The portrait, chosen as the cover for Life magazine, became one of the most widely reproduced images in photographic history, setting in motion a long and distinguished career. In 2000, the international millennium edition of Who’s Who in the World named Karsh one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. He was delighted to learn that he had photographed more than half of those on the list. In honor of his centenary this year, Canada has commissioned three commemorative stamps: the photographer’s 1952 self portrait for mail to Canadian addresses, his famous photograph of Winston Churchill for international use, and his portrait of Audrey Hepburn for mail to the US.

Karsh’s quest—“to stir the emotions of the viewer” and “lay bare the soul” of his subjects—begun in Boston in the 1920s—ultimately gave him entrée to the most fascinating personalities of the modern age, taking him around the world on a photographic odyssey that spanned more than 60 years. In the mid 1990s, Karsh and his wife, Estrellita, relocated to Boston, his “spiritual home,” where he died on July 13, 2002, leaving behind a legacy as one of the 20th century’s most influential figures. In his final book, Karsh: A Biography in Images, the photographer summed up his career: “The endless fascination of these people for me lies in what I call their inward power. It is part of the elusive secret that hides in everyone, and it has been my life’s work to try to capture it on film. My quest has brought me great joy. It has kept me young in heart, adventurous, forever seeking, and always aware that the heart and the mind are the true lens of the camera.”

Yousuf Karsh has long been associated with the MFA. The young photographer studied works of art at the Museum during his apprenticeship in Boston with John Garo in the late 1920s. In 1968, the MFA was chosen as the first US museum venue for a Karsh exhibition. In 1996, the Museum organized Karsh Portraits: The Searching Eye, a major retrospective of 120 photographs. A gift of 199 photographs was given to the Museum by Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh between 1996 and 1998. The collection of predominantly black and white portraits by the internationally renowned artist spans more than 60 years and includes the most famous faces of the 20th century, including Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, and Man Ray. An exhibition, simply titled Karsh, featuring 75 of the artist’s iconic portraits, was sent to the MFA’s sister museum, the Nagoya/Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Nagoya, Japan) in 2000. The Karshes established the annual Karsh Lectureship in Photography in 1997, and the Karsh Prize for Photography at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 1999. In 2005, Mrs. Karsh also endowed the Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Curator of Photographs position. In 2008, she established the Estrellita and Yousuf Karsh Assistant Curator of Photographs position at the MFA.

In addition to their close association with the Museum, the Karshes established an ongoing collaboration with Brigham and Women’s Hospital, melding art and medicine—spiritual and physical healing. In 1998, their gift of 20 unique Karsh portraits of medical and scientific luminaries, titled “Healers of Our Age,” was installed at Brigham and Women’s Nesson Pike. Karsh’s portraits of artists and authors also grace the Bretholtz Center for Patients and Families at BWH. In 2006, Mrs. Karsh presented, in her husband’s memory, a collection of photographs featuring diverse women of accomplishment to the Gretchen S. and Edward A. Fish Center for Women’s Health, a BWH outpatient practice in Chestnut Hill. In July 2008, a Karsh collection was installed in the offices of Dr. Marshall Wolf in the new state-of-the-art Carl J. and Ruth Shapiro Cardiovascular Center at BWH. Karsh, whose original desire was to be a doctor, was especially happy that his work brought comfort and solace for people to enjoy “in a special gallery that never closes.” Another realization of the Karshes’ vision is the 2005 “Bridge of Hope” mural project, conceived and organized by Mrs. Karsh, which transformed the corridor between BWH and Dana-Farber Cancer Center into a fantastic aviary of birds carrying medicinal herbs, creating an inspirational passageway for patients, staff, and visitors. The mural was created by Nan Freeman, a faculty member of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, with the help of student assistants.

In addition to Karsh 100: A Biography in Images, several other exhibitions will be offered around the world celebrating the photographer’s work. The Boston Public Library is mounting an exhibition of Karsh’s photographs this fall, Behind the Words: Literary Portraits by Yousuf Karsh, drawing from a collection of 57 Karsh portraits of literary figures donated to the Library by Mrs. Karsh. Other venues featuring exhibitions of Karsh’s work in 2008–2009 include: National Portrait Gallery, London; Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, AL; Art Institute of Chicago; the Rhode Island School of Design; and the Art Gallery of Windsor, Canada.

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