By Andrew Nurse
The art of Yousuf Karsh is at once alluring and telling. The large-scale exhibition “The World of Yousuf Karsh: A Private Essence” captured both aspects of his work even while I suspect this was not its intention. The exhibition was a collaborative product of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax. Curated by MMFA Senior Curator Emeritus Hilliard T. Goldfarb, it opened in Montreal in 2021 and then moved to Pier 21 where ran until October 16th of last year. Pier 21’s online exhibition discussion notes that it displays over 100 portraits made across the span of a career that started in the 1930s and ran to the 1990s.
“The World of Yousuf Karsh” is meant to be interpreted as a series of intertwined stories that its location in Pier 21 connected to changing perspectives on migration and diversity. In other words, it is an intervention into public history that served several ends. The stories it told were about diversity and success. The exhibition charted Karsh’s artistic development, culminating in his post-World War II international recognition, while highlighting his humanistic values. For Karsh, each portrait is of an individual whose “essence” – or the “truth” of who they are as a person – he seeks to capture.
The ability to capture that truth is a moment of artistic magic to which he devoted his life. In the context of Pier 21 Karsh’s success as a refugee living and working in Canada takes on a special significance. His humane commitment to individualism speaks to a kind of aspirational history in which the embrace of diversity and the acceptance of individualism as the basis of a common humanity works to dislodge the racism, marginalization, and intolerance that defined Canada’s past.
I would be lying if I said I did not find this story appealing, but it is also oddly old fashioned. It sits awkwardly next to what we know about diversity and Canadian history and does not really fit with the kind of complex history Pier 21 itself seeks to tell. It does little to connect Karsh’s art to the broader currents of twentieth century culture and misses an opportunity to think about other ways of telling the story of Karsh’s art and the historical issues to which that art might speak. What I would like to do in this post is to point to some of those other issues and inter-connected histories. This requires that we step outside the storyline of “The World of Yousuf Karsh.”
Karsh was born in 1908 into an Armenian family who fled the Ottoman Empire to escape the genocide. As the exhibition notes, Canada did little to help Armenian refugees despite a clear recognition of their peril. Government officials feared that to help Armenians would open the door to non-White migration. Karsh came to Canada in late 1924 through a policy loophole because an uncle was already living in Quebec where he worked as a professional photographer. This must have had some influence on his choice of careers. Karsh apprenticed to the Armenian American photographer John Garo from 1928 to 1931, came back to Canada in 1932 and set up his own studio in Ottawa in 1933. His decision to work in Ottawa was not accidental. He was looking to meet and photograph the famous people who would become his life’s work.
Karsh’s portraits always left me with mixed emotions. The work of his I know best is his portrait of Grey Owl, which was not included in “The World of Yousuf Karsh.” It is work I have used in courses I’ve taught over the years. Karsh created this portrait before he knew Grey Owl was actually Archie Belaney. Like much of Karsh’s work, this image is stark. Grey Owl is positioned on the viewer’s centre- left, which leaves a negative space to the right. He is wearing a dark hat and clothes with tied black hair falling on his shoulders. Grey Owl seems to stare over the viewer’s shoulder. His face is stern, but not unfriendly. The black and white medium in which Karsh worked lends the image an almost stoic impression.
I don’t necessarily like this portrait, but I find it instructive. Karsh later characterized Grey Owl as an imposter (a “counterfeit”) who could, nevertheless, be respected as an environmentalist. To me, the portrait of Grey Owl is a stereotype of Indigeneity. It looks precisely like the imagined Indigeneity of a liberal sympathetic Settler society that lacks any authentic connection to First Peoples: dignified, lonely, and resigned to its fate. It becomes in this way a simulacrum: a perfect copy of an original that did not exist.
What may be more important is why Karsh was creating Grey Owl’s portrait. He created the image not because he supported Grey Owl’s environmentalism or had expressed a concern with Indigenous rights. Instead, he created the Grey Owl portrait because Grey Owl was famous, and this is the exact same reason he created most of the other portraits that make up “The World of Yousuf Karsh.” The subjects of his portraits were wide ranging. They included scientists, actors, musicians, political figures, authors, religious leaders, athletes, military officials, and royalty among others. They included individuals with such widely different politics as Pierre Trudeau and John Diefenbaker. The key was that they were famous.
Karsh’s interest in the visual representation of fame made him part of an evolving twentieth-century culture of celebrity and speaks to the way that culture functioned. For Karsh it was internationalized and included European authors and African political leaders, American novelists, and British politicians. His work sought to humanize celebrities but also venerated them. It was connected to middle class magazines like Life and Macleans and came to function through galleries, studios, and exhibitions. It focused on cultural dynamics – in Karsh’s case the artistic properties of his photography – but elided politics. Karsh photographed both Fidel Castro and John Kennedy. It could involve popular culture but also the arts.
Looked at in this way Karsh’s art asks a series of potentially significant questions about the history of celebrity culture. These include questions of his own aspirations.
- What was it about fame that he found so alluring?
- Why did he want to be famous and to associate with famous people?
It involves considerations of the ways in which media contributed to celebrity cultures and how images – and celebrity itself – were commercialized and how does celebrity connect to diversity, gender, age, and a host of other factors?
And it involves consideration of how Karsh’s art has come to be understood. Why, for instance, do exhibitions of Karsh’s work focus almost exclusively on celebrities? 
This reflects part of his artistic commitment but not its sum. At different points in his life, Karsh photographed auto workers, farmers, loggers and other workers. Yet these images are rarely included in exhibitions of his work.
Karsh’s art evolved in a specific historical context, and it can speak to that context and about it. It can provide a way for historians to consider the factors that drove the culture of celebrity, its allure, how it worked, and the political implications of artforms that strove to be apolitical. These were not the goals of “The Private World of Yousuf Karsh,” but the exhibition offers a space to ask these questions. And we should because this would usher in a new trajectory in the story of Karsh’s art that would allow us to map a series of important trajectories in modern cultural history. Karsh’s art and artistic world seem ready for re-intepretation.
Andrew Nurse is a professor of Canadian Studies at Mount Allison University.
 Ioana Teodorescu, “Karsh: Image Maker” Material Culture Review 70 (Fall 2009), 82-7.
 Steven Schwinghamer, “‘Altogether Unsatisfactory’: Revisiting the Opening of the Immigration Facility at Halifax’s Pier 21,” Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society 15 (2012): 21 -74.
 Jim Burant, Ottawa Art & Artists: An Illustrated History (Toronto: Art Institute of Canada, 2022). Retrieved from: https://www.aci-iac.ca/art-books/ottawa-art-and-artists/.
 “Karsh: 50 Years of Photographs by Yousuf Karsh – National Portrait Gallery,” accessed August 28, 2022, https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/about/photographs-collection/national-photographic-record/karsh-50-years-of-photographs-by-yousuf-karsh; Sarah Kaufman, “Review of ‘Karsh at 100: Portraits of Artists’ at Canadian Embassy,” wayback machine archives, Washington Post (July 26, 2019), https://web.archive.org/web/ 20190726061531/http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/23/AR2009072304100.html.