Sunday, 26 February 2012

Ubiquitous oblivion

It’s  a curious thing oblivion. Not the willful omission of something but rather the ignorance of something or someone that has played (albeit a small) part in the recording of the history, of not only local dignitaries but that of many important figures of the twentieth century. I couldn’t imagine this happening in France or  America, and maybe especially in America, with it’s fascination with image and whose border is a (relatively) short distance away from the capital of Canada, and something that I still find strange today.
Whilst on business, about a decade ago, I stayed at the Chateaux Laurier Hotel in the Canadian capital of Ottawa. Inside the hotel is rectangular a lounge area with a high ceiling that had mounted on each wall, large elaborately framed portraits in black and white. If I remember them well, one was of Pablo Casals, one was of Albert Einstein and another was of Pablo Casals, not inconsequential figures you might say. The hotel was home to a photographic studio that belonged to Yousuf Karsh born Dec’ 23rd 1908 died July 13th 2002. In his lifetime “…he photographed every Canadian Prime Minister since Mackenzie King, every French President since Charles De Gaulle, every British Prime Minister since Winston Churchill and every American President since Herbert Hoover. He made historic portraits of countless other heads of states, members of royal families, religious leaders, Nobel Laureates, industrialists, scientists, and humanitarians. In addition, he documented almost every major writer, artist, and thinker of that era.” – Jerry Fielder “Karsh a biography in images” MFA publications p69.
Whilst I was on that visit, which was soon after Karsh had died, though not in Ottawa as he had moved to Boston in his retirement,  I wanted to get more of a picture of him whilst I was in his adopted home – Karsh was an émigré from Armenia and arrived in Canada when he was seventeen. I found a gallery almost next to the Hotel, clearly the Chateaux Laurier still had a fond regard for him so I thought I had good reason to be hopeful. The Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography – it’s current exhibition at the time was of Michael Semak, I went in search of Karsh material, but they had no information, no books or prints on Karsh. I thought that the National Gallery, situated not far away (nothing is far away in Ottawa – it’s a small city) might have something on Karsh; but they too had nothing, in fact most of the staff had not heard of their local photographer of the great and the good.
Yousuf Karsh’s images from his portfolio were everywhere, almost literally. Requested as he was to photograph Queen Elizabeth II his image of her was imprinted on the Canadian $1 bill. Now I suspect most of the population of Canada had at one time or another at least one note of that denomination. Similarly, in an age before email when the letter post was the mainstay of long distance communication, his image was transcribed on to sets of definitive stamps in the '40's and early ‘50’s (though the Queen's design proved to an unpopular and were replaced by another, though the transcription was thought to be blamed, not the original image). Quite a few of those were produced I would have thought, which I suppose a good proportion of the inhabitants of the former colony licked and thumb pressed onto envelopes – handling his image in a very personal way! More than that, his image of Winston Churchill, that is the famous one from 1941, not any of the later ones he did, was used on a US 5c stamp in 1965 – one can only guess at how many of those were franked by the US postal service. Australia also used the same photograph as did Royal Mail. One can estimate a seven figure number of images stemming from a couple of photographs that literally orbited the globe – truly ubiquitous.

George VI by Karsh, photo taken 1943

Princess Elizabeth by Karsh, photo taken in 1951

A couple of commemorative stamps of Churchill by Karsh, photo taken in 1941


Enough of the philately.

Karsh's work stands on it's own and is emblematic of a now largely defunct school of pictorial portraits, though highly recommended all the same. Jerry Fielder, his curator and long time assistant claims that he had 15, 312 sittings and from those he made just 150,000 negatives - one can only imagine what he would have done with a digital camera.

A good sample of his work can be found here

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