Shortly following the opening of the photography exhibit “Yousuf Karsh: Icons of the XXth Century,” its curator Jerry Fielder, sat down with us to discuss this famous portrait photographer and this new exhibit. Fielder has worked in connection to Karsh and his photography for over 35 years, and has curated exhibits world-wide. The Mona Bismarck American Center for art & culture, where the exhibit is on display until January 26, 2014, kindly opened their doors and allowed us to conduct the following interview in public – a first for our web-magazine! The interview begins in a normal one-to-one fashion and the second half is dedicated to questions from the audience.
LG: Your long history with Yousuf Karsh began when you started working for him in the late 1970s. Can you describe the various stages of your interactions?
JF: I was hired to be his photographic assistant. He wasn’t looking for a protégé; he was looking for someone to work. I was his only assistant. He did not want an entourage when he photographed someone. He wanted a one-on-one relationship. So we had no stylists, no hair or make up artists. My job was to do everything that needed to be done, from assisting him in the photographic session, to developing negatives, to mounting prints.
LG: Following being his assistant, how did your role evolve?
JF: Well, I was his assistant for 14 years. We traveled a great deal because he liked to photograph people in their own environments. We became very close friends. We’d often be gone for two to three weeks at a time, and we’d be together all the time. We had a very strong friendship in addition to a professional relationship.
I had studied to be a curator and I had no intention to be a photographer. I also had no intention of working with a photographer for so long. One of the things I did in the last 4 years we had the studio open was that I organized his archives, his negatives and his prints. So it became a sort of natural thing that when the studio closed, I became his curator.
LG: You say you had no intention of being a photographer. Did you find yourself inspired to take photos while working with Karsh?
JF: No. I liked what I was doing. My ambition was to work with photographs and not to take photographs. It was wonderful to be working with such a great master who was such an incredible technician. I had enormous admiration for what he was doing.
I think one of the reasons we lasted so long working together was that, as opposed to most photographers’ assistants, I didn’t want to be him. For most photographers, being an assistant is a stepping-stone. You work as someone’s assistant so that you can have your own career as a photographer. It was never anything that I wanted. I liked what I was doing, and he liked what he was doing, so it worked out very well.
LG: The present exhibit here at the Mona Bismarck American Center focuses on Icons of the XXth century. Did you struggle with the selection of celebrities, or did the choices come naturally?
JF: Danielle Berger Fortier worked with me throughout the entire exhibition, and as she knows, it was painful because it there was such a wide selection. We had it narrowed down to a list of people who would be appropriate for the exhibition and we had to eliminate about 40 names. We ended up with 72 in all. We got to the point where if we put someone in, someone else had to come out. There was only so much room.
We didn’t want to crowd people together. Yousuf used to say that if you had an exhibition and you have larger than life people, and larger than life photographs, and you have them too close together, then it’s like being at a celebrity cocktail party; everyone is all crammed together.
These people need room to breathe and they need space, as they did in life. So we couldn’t have more than we did, but it was a painful decision.
LG: How did you go about organizing the people? Did you select themes?
JF: We did. The first room of the exhibit is mostly humanitarians, authors, a lot of Nobel laureates – two for the Nobel Peace Prize, and 3 or 4 for Literature. In the second room, we tried to do a theme of the arts – there are sculptors, painters, performing arts, actors, actresses, and people of design like Christian Dior. The last room is mostly politicians and people involved in politics one way or another. Then we ended the exhibition with two early photographs, a nude study of his first wife, Solange Gautier, and Betty Low. After all the politicians, we wanted people to have something a little lighter and beautiful to leave with.
LG: Would you say that this ensemble of images is unique? Are there certain images that have never before been exhibited together?
Yousuf’s first wife was Solange Gautier- she was French. She was born and raised in Tours. Yousuf spoke French before English – he was fluent in French. He loved French culture, French food, French wine. So he spent a lot of time here and we did a lot of photographs here.
When we do exhibitions outside of France, some of the people photographed aren’t terribly well known outside of France, but they are very meaningful here. So this was a great opportunity for us to show some of the French photographs that aren’t normally seen.
LG: What are a few of the most remarkable images in your opinion? Maybe you have a personal connection to them?
JF: I have a personal connection to all of them because I’ve spent so much time with them, and I was present for a lot of the photographs in this exhibition.
But I think the Georgia O’Keeffe image, which is one of the largest, is remarkable because unless if you’ve done photography, you don’t realize what a difficult photograph that is to make. She is sitting very serenely in her home in Abiquiu, New Mexico. The photo is beautifully composed and beautifully lit. But from a technical aspect, there is a heavy light streaming in from the right hand side. If you and I were a taking a photo with a camera, that would all be blown out – you wouldn’t see anything. But in Yousuf’s print, you can see all the detail in all the areas where there is such strong light. Though Georgia is in a deep shadow, you can still see all the details, even the details on her black dress. Technically, it is extraordinary to do.
LG: How long would such a photo shoot take? What was the time frame?
JF: By the time I came to work for Yousuf, the time frame was pretty much as long as he wanted. People wanted to be photographed; they knew who he was and what he’d done. I think people also realized that these were perhaps the photographs that they would be remembered by. So they were happy to cooperate.
Yousuf did not ask people if he could photograph them. He felt the dynamic was completely wrong. For example, if I ask you if I can take your photograph, then you are doing me a favor. Yousuf didn’t want that to be the dynamic. He wanted the person to want be there, so that there was some kind of collaboration, and so the people were willing to spend the time.
Usually the sessions lasted about 2-2.5 hours, and he might take 15-20 photographs in that time.
LG: Among the celebrity portraits, one image in this exhibit is visually quite different and jumps out in my mind: Elixir, 1938. Could you tell us about the photo and your choice to include it in the exhibit?
JF: It’s a very personal photograph. In the 1930s, Yousuf was doing photographs to make a living. We actually don’t have many prints from the 1930s, because if you hired him to take your photograph and you wanted five copies, then he’d make you five copies. He wasn’t thinking about posterity and paper was expensive. So he wasn’t compiling the whole list of what he had.
Professionally, he was doing passport, debutants, and wedding photographs, and family portraits. But in his private time, he was doing experimental things.
Elixir is composed of three nudes, taken separately, of his wife Solange, along with a photograph of a bottle. The four negatives were sandwiched together. He scratched off some of the emulsion, so it would all fit and look like it was one photograph.
This was not Photoshop; this was incredible technique in 1938. It’s very early. Again, like the O’Keeffe portrait, unless you’ve done photography, you don’t realize how hard this is to do.
One of the reasons I included this is because it’s a portrait of his wife and I wanted this exhibit to be about Yousuf as a person also. We have 72 portraits in this exhibition, but really there are 73. Because while you’re looking at these portraits, and the people are looking at you, there are actually not looking at you – they’re looking at him. And I think if you look at every portrait in this exhibition, you get a portrait of Yousuf. You get an idea of who he was because all these people were relating to him as a person. I hope people remember that there was someone behind the camera, not just in front of the camera.
LG: Beside Icons of the 20th Century, what are some of the other themes you’ve explored in the various exhibits you’ve curated in connection to the Yousuf Karsh Estate?
JF: We have an exhibition that will be opening November 8th at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington. That theme is “All Americans.” There will be 35 portraits on display for six months, and the 35 more will go up on display for the following six more months. That has taken a lot of work.
Yousuf photographed 15,312 people in his career, so there is a lot of work to chose from. For this upcoming exhibit, the curator and I tried to find people that aren’t already represented in their collection. For instance, we have a portrait of Jacky Robinson. As far as the curator knows, and she knows pretty much everything about American portraiture, this is the only formal portrait ever taken of him. They have candid photos of him on the ball field, but it’s the only time they know of that he ever sat in front of a camera.
We also have a portrait of Colonel Sanders. He was photographed before I began working at the studio, but Estrellita said that with all the important people that came through the studio, nobody drew as much attention as him. Everyone wanted to see Colonel Sanders!
LG: Karsh has an international presence. What have been some of the reactions to his exhibits around the world? And has there been an evolution over time as opposed to during his lifetime?
JF: That’s an interesting point. I think people used to go to his exhibitions so they could see portraits of famous people: “Oh look, there’s Helen Keller.” Now, I think that people are less sure about the subjects in the portraits, even though they were huge figures in their time.
I like to eavesdrop in exhibitions and because now people are less sure about who is in the photograph, they tend to look more closely at the image as a work of art. They look at the light or the composition. As I eavesdrop, I find that the people are intrigued. They look at the work differently now. And I like this because I want people to appreciate that Yousuf not only photographed famous people, but that he made works of art.
LG: Besides organizing exhibits, what are some of the other activities you engage in via the Yousuf Karsh Estate?
JF: A lot of people who come to us are researchers and they’re looking for the history behind the photographs.
Recently, I’ve been working with the archivist for King Haakon. He’s interested in the time period that King Haakon and Prince Olaf were in exile during World War II.
In the past few weeks in Paris, I’ve also been working with people at Dior. The portrait of Christian Dior is in this exhibition. They have six people working full time just as curators for Dior. Three people work with the history of the man, and the other three work primarily with his designs and what’s happened to the dresses. They have a wonderful archive, but they wanted more information about Dior’s session with Yousuf.
When I was at the Library & Archives of Canada recently, I photographed the original negatives and envelopes, the correspondence between Dior and Yousuf. That is one of the things that I do.
All of Yousuf’s negatives, work prints, and proofs are at the Library & Archives of Canada. Incidentally, they are forbidden to print from them. That was part of the contract he made when his negatives went there. He didn’t want copies to be made. If you ever see a Karsh photograph, it’s an original. Unlike a lot of photographers where people print from their negatives and sell them, Yousuf didn’t want that. He didn’t want someone else interpreting his negatives, because nobody could make a print like he did.
He also photographed people. And if you give commercial use to something, you’re not just giving the use of the photograph; you’re giving permission to use someone’s image. People trusted him, and he would never violate that trust.
I can tell a lot about a Karsh photograph. If museums or galleries have his work in their collection, I can date a photograph by looking at the paper and his signature. I can tell a fake from an original, though I really haven’t come across any fakes. But you never know in the art world.
Questions from the public:
I was amazed at the number of portraits, especially of men, picturing a cigarette. I was wondering about the dynamics of the cigarette and if Karsh had any thoughts on that?
JF: I used to tease Yousuf that someday I would do an exhibit of just people smoking! I think part of it is the fact that in the 1940s, 50s, people smoked everywhere – at parties, on flights, in restaurants. Smoking was a part of everyday life.
Sometimes people would smoke during a photo shoot to help them relax. It was also something for them to do with their hands.
The other part was that Yousuf loved to play with the smoke in his photographs.
He smoked himself at one time, but he quit before marrying his second wife, Estrellita. Like many reformed smokers, he couldn’t stand to be around cigarettes after that. Once he quit, no one ever had a cigarette again in his photographs.
Speaking of smoking, the Churchill photograph comes to mind. Did the element of smoking really play a role in this portrait?
JF: Yes, and this is a true story.
Yousuf admired Churchill very much. In 1941, Churchill had just given a speech in Parliament, and Yousuf sat and watched him the whole time. It was a very defiant speech about World War II. Hitler had said he would ring the neck of England like a chicken. In his speech, Churchill said, “Some chicken!” And everyone slapped the tables, and he said “Some neck!” And everyone clapped. Churchill was very defiant and Yousuf saw that. That is what he wanted to capture.
Later Churchill came out of parliament, and went into the Speaker’s Office. He was handed a brandy and a cigar, which was pretty normal when he finished a speech somewhere. Yousuf was all prepared but no one had told Churchill he was going to be photographed. He was not happy. So it didn’t start off well.
He told Yousuf, “You may take ONE photograph.” He just had one chance, but Yousuf didn’t want the cigar in the photograph. He held out an ashtray and asked Churchill if he would remove the cigar. He said “No.” So Yousuf adjusted a few things, then went back and asked him a second time if he would mind removing the cigar. Churchill said, “Yes, I would mind.”
So Yousuf adjusted the camera again, got everything ready, then he walked up to Churchill. He said, “Forgive me Sir,” and took the cigar quickly out of his lips. He walked back to the camera and he turned around, and he said Churchill looked like he could have devoured him. And it was then that he took the photograph. Churchill looked defiant and it was just what Yousuf wanted.
Photographing Churchill launched his career. It’s an iconic image. It showed not only the defiance of Churchill, but it symbolized the strength and determination of the British people and the other countries fighting the war.
Yousuf was very charming in a genuine way. It didn’t take long to charm Churchill, and soon he said that Yousuf could take one more photo. And then he got the portrait that Churchill would have posed for: it is the same stance, but Churchill was smiling, looking very benign.
Next year the 5-Pound note will be redesigned in England and this portrait of Churchill will be on the note.
After working so closely with Yousuf for so many years, it sounds like he wanted to capture something that he saw in the person that maybe they didn’t know. Do you feel he was able to direct almost every subject he photographed to make them appear the way he saw them?
JF: Yes. Something about him allowed people to put themselves in his hands.
His wife, Estrellita, has a good analogy about this. When we go to see a doctor, we take off all of our clothes. We’re not embarrassed about this because we’re in the hands of a professional; the doctor knows what he or she is doing. And there was something about Yousuf that would allow people to emotionally disrobe.
The experience people had when they were with him was so important. Yousuf photographed Sandra Day O’Connor. The curator at the Supreme Court is a friend of mine. One day, I was in Washington with Estrellita, and I was going to go visit her. Sandra Day O’Connor found out and asked if she could meet Estrellita. So we went to her chambers. She said, “I wanted to talk to you about the day your husband photographed me, because it meant so much to me. I’ve been photographed many times, but this is my favorite photograph ever taken. But also, it was the only time in my whole life when I’ve been photographed and I didn’t feel like I was a prop. Your husband was genuinely interested in me.“
I was thinking about accessories and the Picasso picture – the man is small and the vase large. How did Karsh work with accessories?
When you’re doing portraiture, you only have so many things to work with: head, shoulders, hands, and accessories. Often, Yousuf would ask people to choose something meaningful to them. In that way, there is a personal connection between the person and the object. It’s a very important aspect.
Have any of his portraits been sold or do they all belong to the Estate?
No, his portraits have been sold and we have dealers who represent us. But Yousuf was not a photographer who made his living by selling photographs. He would make some fine art prints for exhibitions, but not so many for galleries. That would have taken time away from his photographing.
When he decided to close the studio, he did not announce it until about three weeks before we closed. He said, “I’m closing my studio in three weeks and I’m not accepting any additional assignments. And I’m not accepting any orders for photographs.” He did not want some dealer ordering 1,000 Churchills, or anything like that. He wanted to work up until the day we closed the studio, just like he always did.
*Portrait of Jerry Fielder by Annie Viannet.
**Thank you to Danielle Berger Fortier, Theresa Rousseau, and Eddie McDonnel from the Mona Bismarck American Center for art & culture for extending the invitation to Lesphotographes.com to partner on the exhibition “Yousuf Karsh: Icons of the XXth Century.” In addition to this interview, the second aspect of this partnership includes a series of photo workshops that explore studio portraiture like Yousuf Karsh’s work. Information on workshop dates here: Event Workshop – Yousuf Karsh
Mona Bismarck American Center for art & culture
“Yousuf Karsh: Icons of the XXth Century”
34 Ave. de New York, 75016 Paris
Interview by LG