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In search of greatness;: Reflections of Yousuf Karsh Hardcover – 1962
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"'Now for Dr. Koussevitzky, Yousuf,' Garo would say, `let us have a nitric acid.' Which meant I would mix a gin and tonic for the great conductor. `And for Arthur Fiedler some hypo,' hypo being our humorous code-word for bourbon.'"
In his three years working with Garo, young Yousuf learned technique, but he also learned the value of photographing the celebrities of Boston and their noteworthy visitors. He also realized that Garo was not planning to leave a collection of his work for posterity. Karsh instinctively realized this was a mistake for a great portrait photographer such as Garo, whose name or work few people today recognize because of this glaring oversight on his part.
Young Karsh deliberately set out to photograph the most important people in the world. He selected Ottawa, as his base because as a capitol city he figured many of prospective subjects would be likely to visit the location.
"One of the questions I am asked most frequently is why my best known portraits tend to be those of famous persons, rather than of ordinary people whose faces might provide interesting studies for their own sake...I seriously doubt if the interpretation of an unknown face is likely to have interest equal to that of a known personality, either to a photographer or to those who view his work. The best proof of this is that my portraits of famous people are better known than any of my other photographs."
Karsh's quest to photograph the most famous, greatest leaders, scientists, artists, musicians, writers, and other celebrities was a life-long pursuit for him. He used the same photographic techniques he had learned from Garo and from his early experience with the dramatic lighting used for stage productions. Karsh slowly but persistently built his contacts with Canadian government officials so that in later years, especially during WW II, he was able to travel around the world seeking to photograph the most famous people alive with recommendations, references and official clearances from high-ranking government officials. Karsh always went through the proper channels but did figure out how to quickly reach the key officials in the various bureaucracies he needed to navigate.
If there is a fault with this book it is that Karsh spent much, too much time name-dropping. He always referred to this or that General, King, Crown Prince, or important contact he made and socialized with. Karsh would have been quite happy in Hollywood since he really did know almost everyone recognized by the entire world as having truly great fame. Sometimes this name-dropping seems like the entire book is an acknowledgement, or thank you note for all of the officials who helped him arrange to photograph his very famous subjects. It sometimes gets in the way of the book's most interesting material.
Karsh was also a perfectionist and spent decades getting his portrait books published with the finest-quality, very expensive reproduction he demanded. It's doubtful the publishers of those books were able to make a profit on them even though they sold out several editions. Karsh and his wife were very fond of music, drama, dance, literature, flowers, growing herbs, wild birds, travel and gourmet food. He had a shy, low-key personality and was always impeccably dressed in a rather formal manner. He was the perfect embodiment of a cultured gentleman. It was as if he had just stepped off the cover of "Gentleman's Quarterly." His wife was also a bit of a fashion aficionado. She was particularly fond of fancy hats.
This is a fun book to read for any fan of the work of Yousuf Karsh. The man knew what he wanted early on and he kept his eye on that goal. While the book makes him seem a bit of a social climber, it was because he felt, knew that he needed those social contacts to achieve his access to photograph his "wish list" of the "greatest living humans." He also made certain he left several collections of his work at various important museums so that it could be appreciated by posterity. He definitely learned from his mentor Boston Portrait Photographer John Garo. He learned as much from Garo's mistakes as from his achievements. The fact his most well known portraits are of "the most famous of the famous" makes them extra desirable to collectors--both individuals and institutions. Karsh didn't neglect donating a major collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts too.