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Profile : Karsh Shifts Focus of His Career : At 84, Canada's famous photographer crops out lucrative jobs and gives himself artistic license.


OTTAWA — Last year, at the age of 83, Yousuf Karsh gave himself a present that few ever possess: the freedom to work at only what interests him.

And the work that interests the celebrated portrait photographer is that of capturing on film the stuff of fame. Karsh has been called "the last of the great heroic portrait photographers." He is the photographer, more than any other, who through the mystical properties of silver nitrate has helped shape the way the Western World remembers people of consequence.

Karsh evoked the core of British wartime resolve in his extra-famous image of Winston Churchill, made during a remarkable two-minute sitting in the Parliament building here. He spent two days with a declining Ernest Hemingway in Cuba and came away with a disarmingly vulnerable head-on image of the Nobel laureate in a fisherman's sweater, looking as if he had come down with a bad case of the human condition. He caught Albert Einstein looking skyward, humble, perhaps awe-struck.

Until last year, Karsh was accepting commercial assignments, placing discreet ads in the New Yorker magazine that told wealthy, if less noteworthy, potential customers that he was available in his studio at the Chateau Laurier, a grand old pile of a hotel here in the Canadian capital. His fees ran well into the thousands of dollars, but there was no want of takers.

Then, last June, he closed the studio. (Boris N. Yeltsin was his last customer, and Karsh says the Russian president wrapped up the sitting by telling him, "I would like you to remember: Winston Churchill started the Cold War, and I ended it.")

Now, Karsh says, he fixes a lens only on the faces that interest him artistically, turning away all other business.

"We've been offered all kinds of fortunes since I closed the studio," he says, sitting amid the splendor of a suite in the Chateau Laurier while a snowstorm rages outside. His cuffs are prominently monogrammed; his large cuff links, fashioned from museum-grade Greek coins, catch the soft glow of a table lamp. "I've declined."

And so it is that Karsh devotes himself to gathering as many as possible of "these vital people who are leaving their mark on our culture today." He spent the past year and a half traveling the United States, setting up his cameras before noted Americans in the arts, the sciences, politics and sports.

He didn't photograph everybody he wanted--yes, some people are so busy they will turn down even a sitting with Yousuf Karsh--but portraits of the many with the simple good sense to accept Karsh's proposal are now on exhibit at Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art and in his latest album, "American Legends" (Little, Brown and Co., 156 pages).

What kind of person interests the portraitist, now that he is free to follow only his own tastes?

The likes of composer Stephen Sondheim, for instance; director-producer Harold Prince; actress Angela Lansbury, and author Tom Wolfe. Karsh was lucky enough to do a sitting with Jim Henson just weeks before his sudden death, and the resulting portrait shows the man behind the Muppets to have an unexpectedly somber, determined side. Karsh caught NBA legend Bob Cousy looking very much the latter-day Hamlet, contemplating a basketball in his hand in place of, alas, poor Yorick's skull.

There is a surprisingly approachable Andy Warhol in the collection, a positively cherubic H. Norman Schwarzkopf in chocolate-chip "cammies" and a rum portrait of the architect I. M. Pei, dressed in an anything-but-post-modern mandarin tunic.

Is it difficult to get beneath the facades that such people have created for themselves? A defiant Karsh replies, "I photograph the legend. To hell with the person!"

But his wife and helpmate of 30 years, Estrellita, takes exception. "I don't think that's true at all," she argues. "I think that it's the person that you get, and that's why people like to look at your. . . ."

"Well, you cannot afford but to get both the person and the legend," Karsh concedes.

He goes on to tell of the sitting with Warhol that yielded the smiling, unfreakish portrait in the current collection. Warhol first took Karsh to lunch at The Factory, told lots of jokes and then took his picture.

By the time Karsh was ready to start on Warhol, he says, he was aware that he was photographing "many personalities in one. Because he was a good actor, he was a good painter, he was a good photographer. Now I had him in front of the camera, I had to divulge all that to the viewer. I had to put it all into one image."

Though most of Karsh's portraits suggest meticulous planning and lighting, the portraitist says that he goes into each sitting without preconceptions. However familiar the subject, however noteworthy the achievements, Karsh doesn't settle on a means of presentation until he meets his subject face to face.

Usually, he gets to know his subjects in the hour or so that it can take his traveling assistant to set up lights and props.

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