Collecting Photographers: Yousuf Karsh

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

After so many years it is hard to remember the names of all your clients but certain ones stand out,   not because of who they are but for some other interesting circumstance.  It is hard to know sometimes how you get a job.  Who hired you?  Where did they get your name?  But the phone rang one day & we negotiated to photograph at the Kidney Foundation’s annual banquet.  It was kismet.

On assignment I set up in an anteroom to take portraits of dozens of board members, donors, honorees & their wives/husbands.  The pictures were for the annual report & as gifts for everyone who paid big money to attend the fundraiser.  My assistant & I set up seamless paper & large studio lighting & were ready for any contingency.  My client escorted individuals & couples in one by one.  I chitchatted with my subjects briefly & posed each group uniquely. 

Dressed in tuxedos & gowns people just poured in &, as the sessions backed up, after a while it became monotonous.  Then to accommodate everyone, my client started to form larger groups which led to a bit of confusion.  Now these were some of the most important people in philanthropy: doctors, lawyers, captains of industry, socialites, a veritable Who’s Who of the American social scene.  As I was introduced most of the titles were lost on me.  I treated everyone equally. 
But then I noticed, off to the side, one little man.  He was most unassuming but he looked vaguely familiar.  I discretely inquired as to who he was.  The dowager who answered whispered he was Yousuf Karsh

The story of how this diminutive photographer ripped the cigar out of the mouth of England’s Winston Churchill, in order to get the stern portrait of the famous Prime Minister, has become legend in our profession.  From his studio in Ottawa, Canada, he hosted some of the most famous people in the world & joined that list himself.

Most of the evening, I had been totally oblivious to everyone’s stature.  But face to face with one of my heroes my palms began to sweat.  Karsh’s keen eye noticed that I was now nonplussed.  He assured me that I was still capable of taking the picture.  Afterwards we talked a short while but I had to get back to work.  Although we never spent any more time together, because of that day, Mister Karsh was a mentor.  He was to a generation of portrait photographers.  Photography can work that way.


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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.