Tag: in focus

In Focus: Yousuf Karsh

photography the oliviers

In Focus: Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf Karsh seemed destined to become a photographer. Born in 1908, Karsh fled the ravages of war in Armenia and Syria and at age 17 emigrated to Quebec where he lived with his uncle Nakash. Karsh had planned to study medicine, but the gift of a cheap camera from Uncle Nakash set him on an alternative path. Karsh wrote:

While at first I did not realize it, everything connected with the art of photography captivated my interest and energy — it was to be not only my livelihood but my continuing passion. I roamed the fields and woods around Sherbrooke every weekend with a small camera, one of my uncle’s many gifts. I developed the pictures myself and showed them to him for criticism. I am sure they had no merit, but I was learning, and Uncle Nakash was a valuable and patient critic.

An apprenticeship with John H. Garo of Boston  was instrumental in Karsh developing his skills as a portrait photographer. Garo encouraged him to hone his photographer’s eye by studying the works of great painters in order to get a sense of (natural) “light, design and composition.” He was also taught the technical aspects of photography, including how to develop his own photographs using different techniques.

In 1931, Karsh set up a modest independent studio in Ottawa where his work first appeared in print alongside political commentary in an illustrated periodical called Saturday Night. His interest in photographing stage actors developed soon afterward when he was invited to join the Ottawa Little Theatre as a company photographer. It was a prodigious occasion. Not only was he given the opportunity to photograph Lord and Lady Bessborough- whose son was a member of the company – and thereby have his first portraits published in major magazines such as The Tatler and The Sketch, he also met his future wife, the French actress Solange Gauthier.

Further opportunities to photograph luminaries followed in 1942, including sittings with US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In the years following, Karsh continued to capture leading figures in politics, science and the arts, and in 1958 he published a retrospective of his work titled Portraits of Greatness. It is from this book that the following anecdote about photographing the Oliviers at Durham Cottage in London is reproduced.

“When Sir Laurence Olivier greeted me at his London home in 1954, he appeared fatigued. Small wonder, since he had been directing and himself acting in his film production of Richard III all day long. Besides, he said, he had been wearing a false nose and various other uncomfortable disguises which converted a handsome contemporary Englishman into the hunch-back villain of feudal times.

Sir Laurence, and his petite wife, Vivien Leigh,  made a charming couple and did not grudge me their time, even though they were packing for their departure next day to California.*

Soon after the sitting began, their Siamese cat named Boy leapt upon Sir Laurence’s head and completely obscured his face…obviously a privileged character  of the household. I snapped a few pictures of this frivolity to remind me, later on, of a great actor mastered by a pet which alone could steal a scene from him.

Presently, while I waited for the right moment for my portrait, Sir Laurence began to talk about the photography used in Hamlet. The magnificent depth of field in this film, the sense of grandeur, of distance and mystery were due, he said, to the use of a special lens and highly imaginative lighting. (He did not mention, of course, the depth, grandeur, and mystery of his direction and acting.) A play like Hamlet, he added, was much better filmed in black and white than in color, for color would undermine the atmosphere of high tragedy.

Several years later, I had the opportunity to meet Sir Laurence again, when he was performing in John Osborne’s play The Entertainer on Broadway. I had wondered why so great an artist had agreed to act a rather sordid part, created by one of England’s ‘angry young men.’ Sir Laurence saw the play in another light. He said he greatly admired Mr. Osborne’s work; in fact, it had been written especially for him, at his own request.

I asked him if he felt that the angry young men were significantly affecting the English drama. ‘Undoubtedly,’ he said. ‘But the term “angry young men” is a feeble press epithet and a misnomer. Some of the critics are greatly distorting the fine work of these playwrights. I think they are definitely contributing something to the stage, in form, in content, and in action.’

When I asked him what difference he found in British and American audiences he gave me a quick reply: ‘I could think of much much more pleasurable ways of finishing my career than answering that one!’ What, I said, did the movies offer to the serious artist? ‘From experience among my friends I would say financially it is fairly all right in both fields and the choice would be entirely one’s own inclination. For myself I enjoy both the theatre and the film media equally but I should say as a general rule that the ilm is the director’s medium and the theatre is the actor’s medium.'”

Unfortunately the shots of Boy the cat on Olivier’s face haven’t been published, but a few prints from his session with he and Vivien have.

*The Oliviers did not go to California in 1956 as intended, much to Vivien’s disappointment. They went to Spain where Olivier was finishing work on Richard III, and then flew to Paris for business.

NPG P490(60); Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier; Vivien Leigh by Yousuf Karshvia the National Portrait Gallery

NPG P253; Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier by Yousuf Karsh
via the National Portrait Gallery

The Oliviers photographed with Karsh at the London Palladium, 1958

Karsh had these words to offer about the people who appear in his book:

Often, in my experience with distinguished subjects, I have wondered whether the great possess any traits in common. It is my conclusion that they do indeed share certain traits. The physical details of the faces of artists and thinkers vary, of course, but anyone who examines these portraits will observe in them all, I think, an inward power, the power that is essential to any work of the mind or imagination. In all my subjects I indeed expected to find evidence of such power and I was not disappointed. But these faces often bear too the marks of struggle, of the reach that always exceeds the grasp – and sometimes in them is the loneliness of the explorer. They also bear, or so it seems to me, the trace of the fierce competition characteristic of human affairs in our era; sometimes the gleam of arrogance; always the sign of the uncertainty and ceaseless search for truth which, you might say, are the hallmark of the thoughtful man confronted by the dilemma of his species as it is presented today.

NPG P490(43); Augustus John by Yousuf Karsh
Augustus John, Painter. Via the National Portrait Gallery

Ernest Hemingway, American writer.

Georgia O’Keeffe, American painter.

Robert Oppenheimer, American physicist instrumental in the creation of the atomic bomb.

NPG P490(61); Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh by Yousuf Karsh
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.

Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt

John Steinbeck, American writer.

For more about Yousuf Karsh and his work, visit his page on Artsy.

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait

In Focus: George Douglas

photography vivien leigh

In Focus: George Douglas

“It is refreshing to meet a star who is exactly what I hoped she would be.” So said photographer George Douglas of Vivien Leigh. Born in 1920, Douglas spent his childhood in Rottingdean, East Sussex before relocating with his American father and British mother first to Dallas, Texas, and then to Santa Monica, California. It was there in California that his passion for photography took flight.

Santa Monica was an ideal locale for an aspiring photographer. With its close proximity to Hollywood, it was a playground for celebrities and potential stars eager to be noticed. Douglas could often be found wandering the sun-soaked beach with the $5 Leica he had purchased from a local pawnshop. “We have images from his early shots on Muscle Beach (including Jane Russell who was sunbathing and posed up for young George) through to his breakthrough picture of Angela Lansbury and her fiancée Peter Shaw which made a whole page in Life and launched his career,” says Shan Lancaster of the George Douglas Archive.

Douglas’ career took off in the 1940s when he sold his first image to the Los Angeles Times for $30. From there he went to Sun Valley Idaho, where he became the head of photography for the Sun Valley News Bureau. The following year he returned to California where he began contributing photographs of celebrities to Life magazine. His most prolific partnership, however, was with the British news publication Picture Post, where his quick output earned him the nickname “Speedy.” (He shot 99 features for the magazine in the 1950s alone).

By 1965, Picture Post had long ceased to exist and Douglas was making a living as a freelancer for British women’s magazines and the popular TV Mirror. That summer, while on assignment for Woman, he accompanied Vivien Leigh’s good friend, the journalist Godfrey Winn, to Tickerage Mill in Sussex.

Vivien Leigh Tickerage Mill

In Winn’s eyes, “Tickerage Mill was just as romantic a setting as Notley [Abbey], if on a smaller scale. The lake close to the house provided for her the essential ingredient of water always present, and she assured me that she was comforted by the knowledge that it was there, even when obscured by the mist of autumn, the winter fogs. There was also a miniature wood filled with carpets of anemones and bluebells that she had planted, which burgeoning in the spring might have been created for Titania [the character Vivien played in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1937].  Like my mother, Vivien had green fingers, and in an enviously short time, the garden, which had been sadly neglected till the arrival of the new owner, took on a blossoming look of someone who knows that she is cherished.”

Vivien Leigh at Tickerage Mill

George Douglas “vividly” recalled his visit to Tickerage:

“A long table had been set in the garden for lunch and while we ate Vivien said how she wished she was a writer.

‘I mean working on your own, choosing your own subjects,’ she said. ‘I have read dozens of new plays these last few months and I cannot find one to suit me. An actor or an actress cannot perform without a playwright and a theatre and an audience.

‘All you need, Godfrey, is a pad, a pen and a quiet room.’

‘Too quiet, sometimes,’ Godfrey replied. ‘You begin to dread the solitude.’

‘Yes, I see what you mean. I’m always at my happiest when working with a company,’ Vivien replied. ‘It’s feeling you are part of a production, of a plan, watching it take shape and form.’

“She then gave an illustration of what she meant. At the farewell party that was given at the end of the shooting of The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, when she came on the set for the last time, the tough camera crew spontaneously cheered her for being such a good trouper: always punctual on the set, always polite, never changing her tone for important people or small ones.”

Vivien Leigh at Tickerage Mill

In his years as a pro photographer, Douglas had earned a reputation for being a gentleman. And he was well versed in photographing celebrities, including Audrey Hepburn, Peter Sellers, and The Beatles. These qualities were surely appreciated by Vivien, who valued professionalism and privacy. Since purchasing the Mill in 1961 she had allowed a select few photographers into her private country sphere, among them Surrey-based photographer Thomas Wilkie. But it is Douglas whose photographs are the most recognizable to Vivien’s fans today, partially owing to one of them being used on the dust jacket for Alan Dent’s nostalgic 1969 tribute, Vivien Leigh: A Bouquet.

Vivien Leigh: A Bouquet

There is a sense of peaceful sadness about the color photographs of Vivien, clad in a lavender sundress with straw hat in hand, sitting in a small row boat on the pond in front of her house. Douglas was able to capture perfectly what Vivien told Godfrey Winn about the significance of Tickerage at that particular time in her life: “This is a breathing space for me, while I refill the reservoir.”

Tickerage Mill 1965

It is unclear exactly what Douglas hoped Vivien would be (a non-pretentious celebrity, perhaps?), but her parting words to his traveling companion left a great impression on him:

“At this time I was not to know that in two years time Vivien Leigh would be dead, but I always remember her last remark,” Douglas recalled. “She was talking to Godfrey and she said, ‘You remember the day we first met? It was a heavenly one, like this.

‘We were both guests at Jeanne de Casalis’ house for the air rally at Lympne, and Noel Coward gave a marvellous party that evening. It was all such fun and we were both so young, and I trusted everyone and I imagined, like the very young always do, that everything lasts for ever.

‘I mean that a day like this will be followed by another, and another and another.

‘And now I know differently. I know that one has to face periods of despondency and that one must not always trust everyone or else one can be very hurt. At the same time, I have learned through life who really are my friends, and that is so very comforting.’”

Vivien Leigh and Godfrey Winn

When his mother fell ill in Santa Monica, Douglas, tired of “chasing deadlines,” retired from professional photography. To make ends meet, he opened an antiques store in southern California and sold goods imported from the UK. In 1985 he was living with his wife, Jill, in Brighton, when Shan Lancaster and her husband, Roger Bamber, moved in across the street. The two couples became friends, but Douglas never went into detail about his former career.

“He talked about photography to Roger my husband but never showed much of his work to him,” Shan says. “We used to take care of his house in the winter when he was away in California.”

Shan and Jill became especially close. “When George died suddenly in 2010 we spent a lot of time with her, she was so lonely, they had no children and were devoted. She came to us every Sunday at lunchtime, and I’d call on her every day. When she died two years later she left us the house and all the photo archive and only then did we realise quite what he had done in his life. The saddest thing was a manuscript, immaculately typed, which began ‘My friend Roger Bamber keeps telling me I should write my life story so here goes…’ and it goes on for 57,000 words but he never showed us a single page of it.”

Earlier this year, Shan and Roger curated an exhibition at Douglas’ former home, which garnered national media attention. Because the George Douglas Archive is currently in its fledgling stage, the possibilities for making Douglas’ work known to a wider audience are many. “We are working on exploring the archive (tons more negatives to sort through) and hoping to find future venues for exhibitions of his work,” says Shan. “His pictures made an enormous impact at the Brighton Festival in May this year. People were moved, delighted, amazed, amused by them. It’s going to be interesting!”

All photos in this post © Roger Bamber, the George Douglas Archive

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Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait