"Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize."
- Yousuf Karsh
I don’t know who invented the infamous phrase “say cheese” as a way of prompting those about to be photographed to simulate happiness, but I’ll bet my Kodak Instamatic that Yousuf Karsh never used it.
Perhaps the most famous portrait photographer of all time, Karsh made his reputation by skillfully prying the masks off the prominent and humble, allowing us to know them more deeply than his subjects might ever have permitted.
Armenian by birth and Canadian by choice, Karsh achieved undying fame with his 1941 photograph of Winston Churchill, taken after the British Prime Minister had given a speech to the Canadian House of Commons. As Karsh tells the story, Churchill entered the studio in a foul mood, his bulldog scowl already in place. The famous man regarded "my camera as he might regard the German enemy." Although Churchill’s expression was exactly what the photographer was looking for, the cigar stuck between his teeth seemed too informal. "Instinctively, I removed the cigar. At this the Churchillian scowl deepened, the head was thrust forward belligerently, and the hand placed on the hip in an attitude of anger." The image that resulted may be the most reproduced portrait photograph in history.
In his long career, Karsh photographed some of the most celebrated subjects of the 20th century. Among these were Albert Einstein, Albert Schweitzer, Andy Warhol, Audrey Hepburn, Clark Gable, Dwight Eisenhower, Ernest Hemingway, Fidel Castro, Jacqueline Kennedy, Frank Lloyd Wright, George Bernard Shaw, Georgia O'Keeffe, Helen Keller, Humphrey Bogart, John F. Kennedy, Laurence Olivier, Marian Anderson, Muhammad Ali, Pablo Casals, Pandit Nehru, Paul Robeson, Joan Baez, Picasso, Pope Pius XII, Princess Elizabeth, Princess Grace, and Robert Frost.
But my favorite is of a man whose name I don’t even know.
Also, I don’t know the story behind Farmer and His House, except that it was taken somewhere in Canada in the early 1950’s. I do know that Karsh’s portrait of the monumental farmer with the bulging gut and partly unbuttoned pants, posed with the Hopperesque house in the background, is one of the most engaging studies of prairie character you're likely to see.
I imagine the photo session might have gone something like this:
Karsh: I’d like to take your picture.
Farmer: I’d like you to get the hell off my land.
Karsh: This will only take a second.
Farmer: Ok. Just let me fetch my shotgun from the house.
And talk about scowls. Winston Churchill may look like he could take down the Luftwaffe single-handedly, all right, but I’ll bet this guy could kick Winston's upper crust ass.
Yousuf Karsh once said, “There is a brief moment when all there is in a man's mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.”
So, next time you’re going to snap the family at Disneyworld, avoid the “cheese” thing. Tell ‘em instead that you have another family in the Philippines. That’ll be a “moment.”