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Legend Yousuf Karsh, Nearly 80, Still Creating

December 10, 1988|ROBERT LACHMAN | Times Staff Writer

One of the problems with being a legend is that oftentimes you're not around to enjoy your celebrated status. Yousuf Karsh is the exception.

He has not only outlived many of the rich and famous he has captured through his photography, but still keeps a busy work schedule as he nears his 80th birthday on Dec. 23.

Karsh, rated by most as second only to Ansel Adams, has maintained the enthusiasm for his work when most half his age have burned out.

His portraits of such luminaries as Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso and many others have earned Karsh a spot in photographic history.

"Everything in this world I have seen and photographed has given me a thrill and satisfaction," Karsh said. "It's hard work but the aesthetic satisfaction I get from it makes it worth it."

Karsh was in Costa Mesa last week to attend a reception in his honor at the Susan Spiritus Gallery. He was also in town to shoot a portrait of one of Orange County's rich and famous, although he declined to say who it was.

"I don't limit my photography to the famous," he said. "I have photographed the steel mill industry, the automotive industry, farmers and all types of the non-famous."

However, it's his work with some of the shapers of world opinion that has earned him his reputation.

One of the keys to Karsh's success is that he spends a lot of time learning about and getting to know his subject.

Karsh explained that each subject has a unique personality. "You don't have to ask Hemingway about his great safari in Africa because you see evidence of it all around you in his home. If you read one of his books, you realize you are in the presence of a very strong personality."

"You have to have a respect and appreciation of their talent, their role in life, their contribution to the world," he said. "I am at ease regardless of whom I'm with. My contribution as a photographer is that I don't give them any problems. At the same time you have done a great service to humanity and hopefully contributed something for posterity."

Karsh shoots most of his pictures with an 8-by-10-inch view camera. He can get the right shot in just two tries but he usually takes as many as 12. Even at a dozen, it is much fewer than many photographers today whose pictures on a photo shoot can reach into the hundreds.

"Some of my best pictures have been the result of two or three shots," he said. "I wish I could do that every day but it is not always possible to bring that much energy to bear (from the subjects). When I photograph someone, they give me as much time as I need."

Karsh is also very particular about the background in his pictures, although he seldom decides what it will be until meeting the person.

"The person has nothing to do (with choosing the background) in my photographs," he said. "When I am there it is my responsibility. You don't ask these people how they would like to be photographed because if you do, you are already lost. That's why you approach them with self-confidence, but you must also not approach anyone unless you know what you want."

Karsh was born in Armenia and his family moved to Canada when he was 16. Shortly thereafter he got a job in his uncle's photo studio before serving an apprenticeship in Boston. At 23, he moved to Ottawa, which is where he now lives.

It wasn't until December, 1941, when Churchill came to Ottawa that Karsh shot the picture that would soon change the photographer's life. His reputation as a portrait photographer skyrocketed after that as he gained international acclaim.

Karsh has several people who help him with his photography, including a technician who has worked for him for 37 years. While he no longer does his own printing, he does carefully supervise it along with the developing of his negatives.

He checks every print before it leaves his lab. "I get the print I want," he said.

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