Sunday, March 15, 2009

Yousuf Karsh's Iconic Portraits on Display at Art Institute: Wife Donates His Photos to Museum in Will

By Christiana Johns

From politicians to royalty, celebrities to scientists and artists to authors, Yousuf Karsh photographed some of the most famous faces of the 20th century.

These iconic black and white photographs are now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago in a new exhibit called "Yousuf Karsh: Regarding Heroes."

The exhibit is a reflective display of Karsh's preferred portraits and marks the century since his birth. Exhibit Curator David Travis -- who retired after organizing this show -- said the exhibit stems from a collection of more than 200 photos promised to the Institute from Karsh's widow, Estrellita Karsh, in her will.

"Regarding Heroes" consists of more than 100 photographs of many influential people in
politics, science and the arts such as Dwight D. Eisenhower, Albert Einstein and Audrey Hepburn. Karsh was invited to capture official images of the First Family such as John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy, and the British royal family.

"Karsh liked these people; he liked movers and shakers," Travis said. "He was an admitted hero worshipper."

Humble beginnings
Although Karsh rubbed elbows with the rich and famous, he came from humble beginnings in his native Western Armenia, now Turkey. After his family fled to Syria to escape the Armenian Genocide, Karsh was sent overseas to Canada as a teenager to make a life for himself.

He developed his intrigue and skill for photography while living with his uncle, who was a photographer, and later became an apprentice to another photographer, John H. Garo, in Boston from 1928-1931. He moved back to Ottawa where he set up his own studio and did freelance work for Maclean’s magazine.
Then, in 1941, he took the picture that changed his life.

"The Roaring Lion"
After addressing the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa during
photograph him. With only two minutes and having yanked the prime minister's cigar out of his mouth, Karsh captured his most famous portrait of a scowling, steadfast Churchill.

"It became the symbol of British resistance to fascism in Europe, and after that he became world famous almost instantly with this one picture," Travis said.

Churchill later said to him, "You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed." Therefore, Karsh titled the photograph, "The Roaring Lion."

Amazing things
Karsh went on to take hundreds of portraits throughout his lifetime of some of the most well-known people in the world. He not only skillfully used light and composition, but he captured the personalities of his subjects by getting under their skin.

"He could get people to do amazing things for him," Travis said.

Due to his humble background, Travis said Karsh was drawn to these influential people.

"This idea that there were heroes that were gong to make the world a better places was really something deep and sincere in him," he said.

Set the bar pretty high
DePaul University art history professor, Dr. Mark Pohlad, agreed.

"He was anxious to see some optimism in human nature, so I think he went out of his way to capture that," Pohlad said.

The professor took his photography students to see the exhibit in order to show them the portraits from Karsh, who they discussed in class. Pohlad said he wanted to show his students someone who set the bar pretty high for photographs of famous people.
"Karsh might have been the last of the great black and white celebrity photographers," he said.

Musuem visitors, whether they heard of Karsh or not, said there were several aspects of Karsh's work they enjoyed.

Melissa Sanders never heard of Karsh before visiting the Institute, but she said she liked the realistic, simple portrayal of his subjects.

Kim Hoopinggarner, visiting from Evanston, said she thought Karsh captured the personalities of the people he photographed.

"I'm mostly amazed at the range of people that he photographed in his lifetime, from architects and scientists and actors," she said.

Judy Poger, who was visiting from Detriot, said she is awed by Karsh's skill. She said her and her husband have many of his books at home, and have seen many of his exhibits in the past.

"I could recognize the people from clear across the room and know what they were known for, and that's a remarkable skill," Poger said.

"Regarding Heroes" is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago from now until April 26. Admission is $12 for adults and $7 for students. Visit for museum hours and directions.

To see more of Yousuf Karsh's photos and read more about his life and works:

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