On June 17, 1990, four months after being released from his prison cell in South Africa, Nelson Mandela found himself on a plane headed toward Canada, the first of many stops on a high-profile trip to North America.
When he landed, then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney welcomed him at the airport and drove him straight to the Chateaux Laurier Hotel in Ottawa.
There, photographer Yousuf Karsh welcomed him with a smile.
“Why don’t you go and refresh?” Karsh asked Mandela and his then-wife Winnie.
The couple went to their room and napped for about an hour before coming back downstairs for a scheduled portrait shoot. When they returned, Karsh began to photograph the anti-apartheid icon, but he wasn’t getting the pictures that he wanted.
He turned off the tungsten camera lights and started chatting with the 71-year-old Mandela. Karsh told the story of the time he was photographing Pope John XXIII.
Karsh said he asked the Pope, “How many people work in the Vatican?”
“‘About half,’ the Pope said.”
Mandela stared blankly for a moment, but once he got the joke, he started banging his hands on the table and pointed at Karsh and laughed.
After that, the whole mood changed. The shoot lasted about 2½ hours, and by the end, they seemed to have had a nice time together.
This is the story of the images of Mandela taken by the late Karsh, according to Jerry Fielder, who was Karsh’s assistant during the shoot and is now curator and director of the photographer’s estate.
And while the story is unique, the way Karsh handled the situation was not, Fielder says.
Mandela was one of 15,312 people photographed by Karsh during his career, which ended when he closed his studio in 1992. And each person who sat in front of Karsh’s 8×10 format camera was of interest to Karsh.
His passion for photography started when he was a young Armenian immigrant in Canada. His uncle, also a photographer, helped cultivate his interest. In 1926, he worked in his uncle’s studio until he left for Boston to study for three years under Armenian portrait photographer John H. Garo.
Karsh opened his own studio in Ottowa in 1931. Ten years later, he would take a photograph of Winston Churchill that would change his life and truly launch him as a respected and sought-after portrait photographer.
Most of his 61-year career was made with commissions and magazine work, with hundreds of magazine covers to his name. He was assigned by Life, Paris Match and Time magazines, commissioned by governments, heads of states and private individuals.
John Loengard, a renowned portrait photographer and longtime photo editor at Life Magazine, assigned Karsh to photograph President Ronald Reagan.
“His photographs were so good that when Life printed them … it looked as if he and Life were one,” Loengard says.
He began shooting color in the 1940s, but preferred black and white, curator Fielder says. In part, it was because he could develop those negatives with his own formulas instead of sending them to a lab for color prints. Beyond that, color photographs are literal. Shooting in black and white allows a little more room for creative interpretation.
He had learned light techniques in an amateur’s theater in Canada, and he brought that knowledge to his work.
In the 1960s, his competitors and editors would have said that dramatic lighting and a posed subject were “old hat,” and a more candid approach should be used, Loengard says. But Karsh’s photographs remain the classics of the ages.
“My bet would be that in the next century any picture of Hemingway would be Karsh’s … that would be true of a number of very important people,” he says.
What made him so good was his interest in the people he shot, as well as his kind personality and modesty.
He thoroughly researched his subjects, as many photographers do, but beyond that, Fielder says, he would make sure to carve out a couple of hours before the shoot to spend time with the subject.
“And he would watch for something genuine and real,” Fielder says. When he saw that expression in the studio, he would capture it.
“Some people say his photographs are too heroic, but he looked for the best in people and brought it out in them. And I think that shows in his work,” Fielder says. “I think he found the best in people.”
- Elizabeth I. Johnson, CNN