A CALL FROM PHOTOGRAPHER YOUSUF KARSH
It was many years ago on a weekend afternoon when I found myself standing in front of the photography section in a used book store. I recall picking up a copy of a book by the name of Karsh, and, at the time, had no true recollection as to the identity of the author/photographer. This was the late 1970’s. While turning the pages of his book, I was immediately struck by the appearance of this imagery containing high levels of contrast with deep shadows creating complimentary forms when blended with highlights. At the time, I was unable to purchase this item due to limited funding however, as time went by some months later, I was fortunate enough to acquire a used copy which peaked great levels of interest in me. Upon an alternate visit to a book store, I discovered additional copies of his books containing noteworthy individuals, further increasing my level of interest in this photographer of obvious recognition. Following the purchase of supplemental portraiture books, I attempted to secure a connection with Mr. Karsh hoping to establish a brief opportunity to meet him, and discuss the characteristics of his particular style of photography. I was delighted to discover that he was a resident of Ottawa as well as I, and the telephone directory indicated that his residence was situated at one Rideau Street….The Chateau Laurier Hotel.
Attempting to contact an individual of such reputation who has photographed the Queen, Presidents, Prime Ministers etc. created a natural level of anxiety at the time, not knowing what to expect should I be fortunate enough to make his acquaintance. With great trepidation one morning, I picked up the telephone and slowly dialed the number of his studio. A lovely woman’s voice resonated into the earpiece saying good morning, “Karsh Studio” may I help you? I inquired rather timorously if Mr. Karsh was available for me to speak with regarding making arrangements to meet with him for a book signing. She indicated that he was not actually in the city at the time of my call and that he was in the process of constructing a major exhibition of his portraits in the United States, and would not be returning for approximately 3 months time. Her next response to this very day still enlightens me when she continued saying……would you like me to get him to call you upon his return? Well, yes I replied, if I would not be creating too much difficulty on his end. She recorded my name, telephone number and quite honestly, I believed at the time that the likelihood of a reply was rather futile at this point. Time always moves forward does it not with unexpected events. Returning home one day from work I noticed my answering machine light flashing and naturally reviewed the call assuming it was nothing of real importance. How startled was I to hear the same woman’s voice from his studio on my machine indicating that Mr. Karsh has recently returned home from the United States. She then indicated that he would be able to receive me this up coming Tuesday at The Chateau Laurier Hotel at 2:00pm. This time frame was now the 1980’s and I was currently employed full time and considered my options regarding obtaining permission to leave during the regular work period without penalty. Negotiating leave with staff limitations even during those apparently more relaxed working years created some level of difficulty. However, an agreement between my manager and myself was concluded. I made my exit from my place of employment at noon that day, quickly rushing home to collect my book prior to our meeting. It should be said that his secretary directed me to his actual studio itself in The Chateau for the day of our introductions, and not elsewhere in the hotel. Suite 660 is where he is expecting you and kindly be prompt if you please since he works by scheduled appointments. Upon my arrival, I hesitantly depressed the latch of Mr. Karsh’s suite and then, while opening the door slightly……I seemingly set the alarm bells off and there appeared to be no way to cease their on going ringing. I was in a complete paralyzed state of shock. Not being overly familiar with hotels at the time, this event was simply unimaginable to someone of my obvious limited background. To add to this disturbing event of not being able to move momentarily, an extremely large “wall portrait” of the defiant Mr. Churchill was affixed onto the wall directly in front of my person, eyeing my every move. The expression on Mr. Churchill’s face was not what one would call welcoming which caused further levels of anxiety.
Finally a woman appeared introducing herself to me. This was the very polite lady on the phone I had conversed with previously. She indicated that I should please come in and quickly close the door. Apparently an alarm bell had been attached onto the door alerting Mr. Karsh that someone had entered his suite should he be situated in the darkroom printing at the time of one’s arrival. I now had the pleasure of introducing myself to her and she pleasantly through gentle conversation, lowered my state of uneasiness. I then raised the book I was interested in having him autograph. She very politely gestured to a chair near the grumbling Churchill portrait where I could make myself comfortable and went to secure the services of Mr. Karsh. More than a few minutes went by fortunately giving me a moment to recompose myself. Finally he appeared. The man whose imagery I had been studying for so long was just out of the darkroom wearing his apron and a welcoming smile. We sat and chatted for approximately 15 minutes time while he autographed my book. I felt at the time that I had received a remarkable gift from another human being when he affixed his signature and date in my book. How is it at times that the simplest gestures of kindness from one to another carry such significant matters of weight in our lives. We touched on a few topics during our conversation including his recent print exhibition in the United States; what he had planned in the not too distant future and in addition, if I might return sometime in the future to have him autograph another book when I could acquire it. Yes, yes of course, was his enthusiastic reply, and then excusing himself politely, made the return journey back to his darkroom.
Arriving home, I elected to quietly review the contents of my book again and felt that the contents themselves had now gained additional levels of credibility. The newly affixed signature of the man himself elevated my levels of respect for someone who had accomplished so much at this point in his career. As time continued, I was fortunate enough to locate additional copies of Mr. Karsh’s books and conversely, I contacted his studio with the hopes of soliciting supplemental autographs from him. I was successful at obtaining several other appointments over the years, (six in total), and after a brief time, we began to know each other a bit more making each visit more personable. On one memorable occasion, I received a phone call from Mr. Karsh himself requesting a meeting with me at his studio. I naturally was completely taken back by such a request but did not hesitate in committing to meet. I made my way to the Chateau Laurier under considerably less stress as opposed to my initial meeting with him but at the same time, was mildly anxious to receive his query. The lovely receptionist greeted me once again upon my arrival and then returned momentarily with Mr. Karsh. We sat in his studio for roughly 20 minutes and I was at a loss as to understand why I was being questioned so extensively regarding my background and availability. The list of topics we covered as I recall were very diversified including…am I a single man or married, what is my present state of employment, do I have any children (dependents), what is my availability like on a general basis, what experience do I have behind the camera and in addition, what are my talents pertaining to darkroom practice. This series of inquiries finally ended and he once again thanked me very much for my attendance and made a polite exit at that point. I looked at his secretary after he dismissed himself from me and indicated that I simply do not understand this level of questioning. Apparently, one of Mr. Karsh’s assistants was interested in moving on to another position creating a possible opening on staff. When discussing this further with his secretary, she indicated that based upon my number of visits to his studio and the way I presented myself to him, I am being considered as a candidate for the position. I was absolutely in awe at hearing this. In the most humblest of ways possible to the reader, an individual seldom receives remarks directed towards one’s character that are even inadvertently complementary. I then inquired about the job requirements but she was not in a position to release any further information pertaining to the position itself and mentioned that they would be in contact with me soon. A week and a half had now elapsed and not having heard back from his studio, I chose to reestablish contact to see if a decision had been made regarding the new position. His secretary on the phone had to inform me that Mr. Karsh thought I would be a very eligible candidate for the position and he was seriously considering hiring me but regrettably, the current employee decided to stay. The opportunity had now become obsolete and I was saddened at the set of circumstances presented to me. This position would have been a splendid opportunity to become affiliated with personages of professional representation extending my capacity to gain first hand experience in my chosen field.
My connection with Mr. Karsh did not end at that time. Another set of circumstances were presented to me when I was on a camping expedition to Bon Echo Provincial park in the year 1993. It was commonplace to arrive at the main gates of the park and greet a staff member indicating that I had reservations for the weekend. It was also customary for the park representative to provide me with a complimentary newspaper featuring the park itself. I accepted the flyers and hurried to my campsite to set up my equipment then choosing to relax, I flipped through the pages of the paper itself. What a delight it was to see the title of a page indicating “famous personages who visited Bon Echo Park” including Mr. Karsh. Searching through the pages themselves, I was able to locate a photograph of him standing amongst others in conversation outside what I believed to be a building called “Dollywood”. I chose to make the journey back to the main gates requesting an alternate copy of the paper with the desire to direct one to Mr. Karsh himself upon my return to Ottawa. After mailing him a copy of the flyer shortly afterwards, a month’s time had gone by and arriving home from work one day, I noticed a small sized letter had been deposited in my letterbox. What jubilation I felt reading the letterhead indicating it’s origin….Karsh…..Chateau Laurier Hotel, Ottawa. I opened it up very carefully as to not cause any damage to the envelope itself and was amazed at the fact that he had actually invested the time to hand write me a letter of thanks. Mr. Karsh used a black ink fountain pen at the time of my book signings and the current letter was inscribed with the same style of pen itself. He reflected upon my kindness in keeping him in mind in forwarding him a copy. He continued his letter mentioning that my thoughtfulness had indeed transported him temporarily back in time and what wonderful memories the newspaper generated. The letter remains with me to this day kept in a special place as a wonderful memento of my visits to his studio at the Chateau.
In closing, recalling the times I visited The Chateau Laurier to converse with him were frequently spent in two locales. Receiving a phone call from his secretary prior to each visit she often directed me to either his studio or outside Zoe’s lounge. I would always arrive early for my scheduled visit and often wait to receive him outside the elevator upon his exit on the main level if we were to meet at Zoe’s. Walking with my arm around his shoulders was an accepted thing as at this point, we were certainly known to each other. I remember how striking his attire was each time we met on ground level of The Chateau. He would always be clothed in an impressive suit and tie and one could not help notice the high gloss of his polished footwear. During one visit it seemed our conversations bounced around often and when inquiring as to his childhood in Armenia in Turkey, his eyes were expressive of great depth at this point. He mentioned that he could only hope that no one should have to suffer the atrocities that he was subjected to during his youth and then followed by indicating, those days are in the past. They are over. He then quietly, optimistically, concluded by saying that his wish would be that people from all walks of life can learn from the past and end the sadness of hardship created by others. There is always goodness out there and it will eventually prevail. He smiled.
Jeff Ryan Photography/Ryan Studio, Ottawa, Ontario. 2018.