Tuesday, September 14, 2010

WINSTON CHURCHILL: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

by Yousuf Karsh


In 1967, during the time that  Ivaan was working in the photo studio at Maclean Hunter Publishing, the world-renowned Armenian-Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, who lived in Ottawa, came to the photo studio to be photographed, in conjunction with a magazine article that was being written about him.  For Karsh, it was nearly a life-changing event.  Under the direction of Chief Photographer Nicke Luciani, Ivaan and fellow photographer Harvey Lambert had set up the studio to shoot a portrait of Karsh to accompany the article:   backdrop, lights, camera, a chair for the celebrated Karsh to sit on.  Karsh positioned himself on the chair, the lights were turned on, Ivaan was adjusting the camera, and Harvey was standing beside him, surveying the scene.  Suddenly, the hinged arm of one of the light stands began to swing slowly downwards.  Obviously, in the excitement of preparing the studio, the screw on the hinged arm had not been tightened sufficiently, and this heavy light began descending, with increasing velocity, towards Karsh's head.  Ivaan, peering through the viewfinder, was oblivious. Harvey, horrified, dived toward the "business end" of the light and caught it, just before it intersected with Karsh's head, possibly saving Karsh's life and certainly saving all of their reputations.

The photos they took of Karsh are now in the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology on the centenary of Karsh's birth, donated by the late Nicke Luciani's sister, Angela Sabino.  Karsh seemed to have taken a liking to Ivaan, and presented him with a gift:  a copy of the famous portrait he had taken of Winston Churchill in 1941, where he'd reputedly pulled the ever-present cigar from Churchill's lips, resulting in the scowl you see above.  (The photo above is a close-cropped section, not the entire portrait.)


40 years later, this gift from Karsh was languishing among Ivaan's archives in our basement.  It's astonishing that it had never been lost.  I didn't even know of its existence, until Ivaan told me the story of their encounter with Karsh.  I found the portrait, still in perfect condition, and  persuaded Ivaan that he would be wise to sell it.  He reluctantly agreed, and our friend Stephen Bulger, who owns the Stephen Bulger Gallery on Queen Street West, handled the sale for us.

Before handing the portrait over to Stephen, Ivaan decided to make a colour photocopy of this black and white photograph, as a memento.  Actually, he made 36 copies, and then he laminated them.  They look amazing.  A decade later, Yousuf Karsh, Nicke Luciani and Ivaan are probably discussing the finer points of portrait photography in the World To Come (Harvey Lambert is still very much alive) ....and I am left with 36 laminated pictures of Winston Churchill.


These heavily laminated photos are about the size of a placemat.  I have no idea what to do with them.  Perhaps you'd like to have one. If so, please let me know.  I have a grudging respect for Winston Churchill; he stood up to Hitler when no other world leaders would (well, the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria, Archbishop Krill did, in an act of great bravery, as did Bulgaria's King Boris III).  This was the kind of historical detail that really engaged Ivaan.  I'll write about Ivaan's passion for history in an upcoming post).  Meanwhile, I welcome your suggestions.

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