The greatest works of art aren’t always displayed in the most visited galleries. Unorthodox venues, like embassies, also regularly host exhibitions featuring masterpieces by internationally lauded artists. And, more often than not, these turn out to be true gems.
"Portraits," the Embassy of Canada Prince Takamado Gallery’s current exhibition, is a rare collection of 15 original prints by the late master of photography and award winner Yousuf Karsh. Known for astutely capturing the essence of his subjects, Karsh (1908-2002) gained worldwide fame photographing people from all walks of life, including some of the most influential figures of the 20th century.
Undoubtedly one of the most accomplished portrait photographers of his time, Karsh believed the lighting of a scene could influence the way people examine an image, how they feel about it and how they interpret it. This led him to pioneer a distinct approach to portrait photography, using theatrical lighting to help bring out the sitters’ true nature.
Karsh’s talent lay in his ability to tap into the humanity of his subjects, regardless of their character. His “chief joy” as he put it, was to “photograph the great in heart, in mind and in spirit, whether they be famous or humble.” He took care, before every photo shoot, to research thoroughly the lives and accomplishments of his subjects.
Forced to flee his native Armenia at a time when the country was shattered by genocide, he travelled for a month with a Bedouin and Kurdish caravan to escape persecution. The then 14-year-old boy, who already possessed a keen — and “kind” — eye for detail, was caught sketching a pile of human bones and skulls — a stark reminder of his people’s bitter suffering — after he unwittingly stumbled upon it. He later sharpened his gift with his mentor, Boston photographer John H. Garo, who taught him “to see and to remember what [he] saw.”
In 1925, Karsh immigrated to Canada, where the promise of a new life awaited him. He was welcomed at the Halifax wharf by his uncle, who kindly took him under his wing and taught him the rudiments of photography. It was then that Karsh found his lifelong passion. His exceptional capacity for empathy, respect and dignity rapidly became his trademark.
In his book "Regarding Heroes," author David Travis writes: “Karsh was considerate and kind to all his subjects, always looking for positive values, even in such unyielding communist adversaries as Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro, both of whom cooperated on the basis of their trust of Karsh, something no other photographer managed to achieve.”
The artist, who photographed the likes of Einstein, Hemingway, Picasso and Keller, to name but a few, gained international fame after he was asked to do a portrait of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Seeing that he wouldn’t let go of his cigar, Karsh was obliged to pluck it out of his mouth. “By the time I got back to my camera,” he recounted, “he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”
Yousuf Karsh: "Portraits"
Until Aug 31 at the Embassy of Canada Prince Takamado Gallery
7338 Akasaka, Minato-ku
Open: Mon,Tue & Thu, Fri, 10 a.m.- 5:30 p.m.; Wed 10 a.m.- 8 p.m.; closed weekends and July 1.
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