The Camera’s Eye
YOUSUF KARSH was born in Mardin, Armenia-in-Turkey, two days before Christmas, 1908. His grandfather was an engraver, his father an importer, but after the massacre of 1915 young Yousuf was sent to the protection of his uncle, who had a photographic studio in Sherbrooke, Quebec. “In Canada,” wrote Mr. Karsh, “I discovered something I had never known before: freedom to be happy. At hand were my uncle’s art and studio, and photography seized my imagination.”
After a three-year apprenticeship in Boston, Mr. Karsh opened his own studio in Ottawa, which provided him with opportunities which he never would have received in any other city. Prime Minister Mackenzie King asked him to do the official Canadian portraits and later, in 1951, gave him access to Winston Churchill. Mr. Churchill, fatigued after addressing the Canadian Parliament, insisted on being photographed with a cigar in his mouth, but at the last minute Karsh deftly snatched it away, revealing the Churchillian features in that flash of brooding determination so characteristic of Britain’s leader throughout the war.
In 1956 Mr. Karsh published a selection of seventy-five of his most notable portraits in his book, FACES OF DESTINY. For this portfolio we have selected five of his new portraits and have invited Mr. Karsh to tell us how he made them.
SO WIDELY known is the legend of Albert Schweitzer, so great the man behind the legend, that I approached him with feelings of complete inadequacy. How should I assess and then record a personality so complex, a master of so many crafts, a student of the world who has left the world behind to pursue the craft of healing alone in the African jungle?
It had taken me a long time to catch up with “Le Grand Docteur.” For several years I had wondered how I should ever reach his home and hospital in Lambarene, French Equatorial Africa, but, by good luck, I found myself in France when he happened to visit his home town, Gunsbach, in Alsace, before going to Sweden to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The necessary arrangements for our meeting were quickly approved, and at the appointed time Madame Martin, who takes care of Schweitzer’s varied interests in Europe, ushered me into a small study without the least ceremony. “Now,” she said, “here is the Doctor.”
When one has read all Schweitzer’s works and long admired him from the distance, one fears that the actual man will fall below the imagined image. Not so with Schweitzer. Though he made no attempt to impress me, I felt at once, as everyone who meets him does, the presence of an immense wisdom, the stronger for its utter simplicity. What struck me from the beginning was this man’s power to concentrate totally on the business at hand. While I changed my lights, films, and other equipment, he went back to his writing as if he were alone in the room, and then, when I was ready, he gave me his full attention.
A thousand questions were on my tongue, and it was tantalizing to realize that I would not have time to ask a fraction of them. “What,” I said at random, “do the African natives think of Western music?”
“Natives,” he answered, “don’t think. They live. If they think at all it’s only to find out how little work they can get away with.” (This he said with a quiet, tolerant chuckle.)
Well, then, how did the natives react when they heard of the white man’s world wars?
“They have no idea,” he said, “what war means. Their first reaction is to say, ‘Why don’t they get together and settle it?’ You see, in their country they try to negotiate their disputes. But since the white men fight, they want to know if more than ten warriors have been killed. To lose as many as ten warriors in battle is, for them, a great catastrophe.”
All this time I was watching Schweitzer closely, especially his hands, for they are often more revealing even than a face. These were the fine hands of a musician and a healer. I wished to photograph him holding some books, preferably an album of Bach, but he protested that to use Bach’s music for this purpose would be like “choucroute garni.” Accordingly, with a shy smile, he brought out some of his own books. And then he revealed a very human side, a little confession of vanity, by refusing to be photographed while wearing his spectacles. “They make me look too old,” he said.
It was not my intention to make the portrait that Schweitzer might desire but to catch him, if possible, off his guard when, perhaps, my camera might seize something of those qualities which have made him great as a doctor, musician, philosopher, humanitarian, theologian, and writer. The picture printed here was taken in a moment of meditation when Schweitzer thought I was adjusting my camera. I had deliberately deceived him, but he will forgive me. This is a forgiving man.
Remembering those instincts of tolerance, and his almost Christlike ministrations to the African natives, I asked him how he thought Christ would be received if He were to appear in our time.
Schweitzer looked up at me and in his quiet voice replied: “People would not understand Him at all.”
Which, then, did he consider the most important of the Ten Commandments?
Schweitzer thought about that question for a long moment, the granite face illuminated, the man behind the legend suddenly visible. “Christ,” he said, “gave only one Commandment. And that was Love.”
WHEN I entered Epstein’s London home in 1943, he came down the stairs, greeted me warmly, observed the two Canadian soldiers who served as my assistants that day, looked at my equipment, and then burst into tears. Without a word he rushed back up the stairs. I did not see him again on that trip.
As the years passed I still saw no reason for his tears, and it remains an unsolved mystery, but I was determined that some day I would photograph him. Alas, after all the necessary arrangements had been made, I found the great sculptor suffering from an eye infection which, of course, made a portrait impossible.
There was no sign of temperament that day. Epstein graciously showed me about a studio filled with his massive and awe-inspiring work. I was especially attracted by a metal sketch-model of a Madonna and Child and resolved to photograph it for use on our personal Christmas card if he would let me. He was loath to part with it, even for a few hours, but finally agreed to send it to my hotel. It arrived, meticulously wrapped in cotton batting with minute recommendations for its care.
My wife fell immediately under the spell of this statue, and so did I. Somehow, we agreed, it must be acquired for our home in Ottawa, but we supposed that it would be far beyond our means even if Epstein would sell it. Nevertheless, I resolved to try. At first Epstein would not hear of parting with his work. In the end he gave it to me for a trifle. So we went home happy — but without a portrait.
My third try, in 1955, was a complete success. To leave this restless man free for movement I decided to use electronic flash lights, though I never quite trust them. He walked about his studio, talking all the time and apparently unconscious of my camera. Only when I developed my films did I realize that Epstein’s hand had adopted over and over again the attitude of the hand in the life-sized sculpture which I had used as a background. I suspected then that he must have used his own hand repeatedly as a model.
In the middle of a tiring afternoon he suggested a break for tea. I agreed that a rest might give us additional inspiration.
“Inspiration?" he retorted. “I never lack inspiration.” A bold assumption, but the jungle of statuary around us confirmed it.
After tea he: took me to a little room where, in a glass enclosure, he had placed some of his treasures. My eye fell at once upon a sculpture of two birds in white marble, and I knew that it belonged in our home, which (being inveterate bird watchers) we call “Little Wings.”
Epstein would not sell his marble birds. As I evidently showed my disappointment. he added, “Some day I may bring myself to part with them.” Meanwhile 1 asked him to design a base for this sculpture. 1 saw it as the center of an exquisite fountain.
Epstein sat down again at the tea table, seized a napkin, and began drawing a sketch of my fountain. “This,” he said, “is how I see it.” Of course he had seen it perfectly.
Now, whenever I walk around our grounds I visualize that fountain, capped by those lovely birds, glistening in a spray of water. And I promise myself that there it will stand some day, a memory of Epstein, a fragment from his vision of beauty.
AS I drove along the dusty road and neared Prades, I had the feeling that I was on pilgrimage bent. This would be, indeed, a pilgrimage of sorts, for I was going to meet that great sell-exile and patron saint of music, Pablo Casals. He did not disappoint me. I had never photographed a warmer or more sensitive human being.
We decided to take the portraits in two sessions and against two different backgrounds. First, I asked Casals to play his beloved cello in the Church of St. Peter. Next day we moved to the old Abbey of St. Michel de Cuxa. Though partially restored, it was empty and dark. One electric light bulb was the only illumination available, but happily I secured enough current for my strobe lights.
There was no need to pose Casals. Once he had sat down with his cello, the immediate surroundings seemed to fade from his consciousness. Soon the dismal chamber was throbbing with music of an almost unearthly quality. I hardly dared to talk or move for fear of breaking the spell. And then, as I watched the lonely figure crouched against the rough stones, a small window high above him giving this scene the look of a prison, I suddenly decided on an unusual experiment. I would photograph the musician’s back. I would record, if I could, my own vivid impression of the voluntary prisoner who, on the surge of his music, had escaped not only the prison but the world. The portrait reproduced here perhaps suggests the immense strength, intellectual, physical, and spiritual, flowing from this amazing old man. Better than my many portraits of his face, this picture seems to convey the loneliness, the grandeur, and the indomitable spirit of the musician.
After the sitting we returned to Casals’ exceedingly small home (really the porter’s lodge of an estate), where he invited me into his study for sherry and biscuits.
What, I asked, did he recommend to cultivate an appreciation of music?
“It’s sensitiveness that matters,” he said. “A certain amount of education through the ear, yes; but to appreciate music one must leave it to one s instinct.” All children, he thought, should study music, for it was “the language of the spirit.” The piano was the best instrument because it could play all music. In fact all other instrumentalists should study the piano as well.
Had musical performances improved or deteriorated in the course of Casals’ experience? Technique, he answered, had progressed, especially among American and Russian artists. The phonograph had helped also, since “it demands perfection of technique.” But, he warned, artists tended sometimes to concentrate on technique at the expense of interpretation and feeling.
I asked him to name the greatest living composers. “Very difficult to say,” he replied. “For me, perhaps Bloch, Enesco, and Salazar.”
Was there a contemporary composer who, in years to come, would rank with the great classical figures of music?
“I don’t know,” he said, “what will go through the brains of future generations, but I don’t believe there is such a genius alive today. For me classical music is to be adopted, felt, recognized, and loved. Modern music has turned toward non-music. Though they have a natural understanding of music, the moderns reject the classic approach as old-hat, pompous, and irrelevant to our time. I hope music will become music again as it was for centuries from Palestrina to Faure, Ravel, and Debussy.”
Some of the most warlike nations, I noted, were also the most gifted in music. How did Casals explain that paradox?
He could not explain it but observed that all races love and need music, and all nations have their inspiring musical folklore. “It is a necessity,”he said, “for all to express themselves by means of sound.”
We toasted each other’s health in a last glass of sherry, and I departed. The old man waved from the window until my car had disappeared from sight.
AS EVERYBODY knows, Martha Graham has originated, out of the dance, almost a new art form. Naturally, I wished to photograph her in the posture and mood of the dance. But this seemed impossible under the circumstances.
Upon arriving at Miss Graham’s apartment I was impressed by the stark simplicity with which she had chosen to surround herself. On a modernistic table stood a grotesque piece of petrified wood which vaguely suggested the attitude of a modern dancer. A rubber plant in one corner, a few pieces of very modern furniture no pictures, no radio, no decorations of any sort — this, then, was to be the setting of a dancer’s portrait. Then I looked up to the ceiling, and it seemed to be only a few inches above my head. No one, not even Martha Graham, could dance in such a place.
Well, compromise sometimes must be the stuff that pictures are made of. So, rather hopelessly, I sat Miss Graham on a low stool and asked her to assume various attitudes as if she had the space of a great stage around her. Amazingly enough, she had such perfect control over her body that this restricted posture presented no problem. Site was sitting on a stool in a low room, but she seemed to be dancing. In fact, she was dancing, and thus I recorded her.
She talked to me quietly about the dance, displaying a single-minded devotion to her art. Though her work has won wide acceptance, she thought it went over better with younger people than with older audiences. “The young,” she said, “have an appetite for experiments and experience, which is all that is really necessary. They have the habit of looking inside because of their concentration and study of psychology in schools today.”
On that point I could offer no opinion, but there is no doubt that Martha Graham has started a new trend in dancing. Whether her work is labeled impressionistic or given some other name, it is certainly based on sound choreography. Older dance forms are often stilted. Hers is fluid and therefore, it seems to me, more representative of this fluid and changing age.
Anyway, she impressed me as the kind of creative artist who is not at all concerned with the commercial aspect of her work, but only with the aesthetic satisfaction which she herself derives from it. She submerges herself in it so utterly — even under a low ceiling and on a stool that she seems mentally and physically apart. Yet her art is never isolated from her audience. Like all art, it is lonely in creation but instantly communicates with all who watch it, as I, who watched it in an unlikely setting, can testify.
IN HIS books and stories Ernest Hemingway has brought to life a swarming company of characters, but himself he has jealously concealed. After reading those tales of ferocity, violence, and physical suffering, I expected to meet in the author a composite image of his creations or, at any rate, a very tough guy. Instead, I found Hemingway a man of peculiar gentleness, the shiest man I ever photographed.
Therein, I imagine, lies the secret of his work. He has felt in his soul, with lonely anguish, the tragedy of our species, has expressed it in his writing, but, for self-protection, has built around himself a wall of silence and myth. As he sat down for his portrait, he was so shy in the presence of his wife and mine that they at once realized his embarrassment and retired. Even when we were alone the shyness persisted. In his writing he can communicate human life entire, but compared to his pen his tongue is an inadequate instrument.
Nevertheless, I was determined to make him talk, to focus his mind, and hence his face, on some subject which would arouse both. So I asked him bluntly what he thought about that large tribe of second-rate writers who try to imitate his style and always fail. Evidently he had thought a good deal about these imitations and, forgetting his diffidence, gave me a ready answer.
The trouble with the imitators, he said, was that they were able only to pick out the obvious faults in his work, the kind of writing he should never have done, the mistakes he should have avoided. They invariably missed his real purpose and his real method; just as many readers remembered him chiefly for his defects.
There was no bitterness in this remark, only a rather sad amusement. And as he thought about my question I discovered that he had a wonderful smile — alive, kindly, full of understanding and compassion.
On developing my negatives I liked best the portrait printed here. It is, I think, a true portrait, the face of a giant cruelly battered by life but invincible. It makes me think, as I look at it again, of Ulysses setting out on his last voyage, still “strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” That is the true Hemingway behind the public mask.
In answer to my questions Hemingway talked quietly about his famous airplane accident. Yes, he was still suffering from injuries that would have killed most men. The worst of it was the doctors’ strict diet, both solid and liquid. Perhaps, though, if the new tests turned out well, he would be allowed more than a few glasses of wine every day. “I don’t drink while I write,” he added. “You can’t write serious stuff and drink.”
I asked next what he was really getting at in his books. He said simply that he was trying to get at the truth, but he quickly switched the conversation from himself and began to talk about my work. A photographic portrait, he declared, was a biography and a direct interpretation of truth. He loathed that type of candid photography which seeks only to put the subject in the most disadvantageous posture and mood, especially with his mouth open.
“Why, they sit around me sometimes for a whole week,” he protested, “and wait. So I just don’t open my mouth —for a whole week.”
I tried to start him talking of his masterpieces, but he would not discuss them. Once he had written a book, he said, it went out of his mind completely and no longer interested him. There must never be any residue from one book carried into another. Every book was a new challenge; an experiment and an adventure. “I must forget what I’ve written in the past,” he explained, “before I can project myself into a new work.”
Some of the shyness had disappeared by now, and Hemingway had become quite communicative. He chaffed me about my obviously strong constitution and asserted that photographers always live to a ripe old age. “Furthermore,” he chuckled, “they have a remarkable memory — the memory of the illiterate. I used to have a tremendous memory myself when I was an illiterate. By the time I learned to write, the memory was installed and remained with me.”
It is impossible to understand Hemingway’s serenity without meeting his wife. I asked her if she still did some serious writing, but she admitted that while she still did a few little things she had no time or desire for her craft. She was too busy taking care of her husband.
As we were leaving, my wife noted some flowers growing between the stone steps of the garden. As a gardener herself she approved of flowers grown in this manner, though their cultivation disturbed the stones. “Yes,” said Hemingway, “but we can always replace the stones.”
Between the rough boulders of this man’s prose, I thought, the flowers of compassion will always grow, whether the public notices them or not.