Monday, January 24, 2011

Iconic Monday: Karsh and Churchill

My new leaf for the new year is to focus on photographic legacy, so Monday's will now become Iconic Mondays--each week another famous picture. (By the way, if you'd like icons more than just once a week, go here. One of the best photo blogs going, I think. Also excuse me if I crib a little bit. That's what the Internet is for, yes?) For this week's edition, I thought we'd go with an an icon among icons--perhaps, even, the single most memorable photographic portrait ever made: Yousef Karsh's portrait of Winston Churchill.

Lots of people know, or at least have a vague idea of the story behind the picture...but it's always worth retelling. Because that's what icons are all about.

Canadian photographer Karsh--a.k.a. Karsh of Ottowa--made this portrait of the British Prime Minister on December 30, 1941, just following Churchill's rousing speech to the Canadian House of Commons--the speech famed for this Churchillian turn:
When I warned [the French] that Britain would fight on alone, whatever they did, their generals told their prime minister and his divided cabinet: "In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken."
Some chicken. Some neck.
Karsh had been hired by the Canadian government to take the picture to commemorate the speech, and Churchill was delivered to the photographer directly after finishing. As the story has been told, Churchill was unfortunately not told he was gong to be posing for a photo, and he was not happy; he told Karsh he had exactly two minutes to work. Karsh himself later described what happened next:
...chewing vigorously on his cigar...He reluctantly followed me to where my lights and camera were set up. I offered him an ash tray for his cigar but he pointedly ignored it, his eyes boring into mine. At the camera, I made sure everything was in focus, closed the lens and stood up, my hand ready to squeeze the shutter release, when something made me hesitate.Then suddenly, with a strange boldness, almost as if it were an unconscious act, I stepped forward and said, "Forgive me, sir." Without premeditation, I reached up and removed the cigar from his mouth.

...At this [his] scowl deepened, the head was thrust forward belligerently, and the hand placed on the hip in an attitude of anger...I clicked the shutter. Then he relaxed. "All right," he grunted as he assumed a more benign attitude, "you may take another."
The photo below is the second take.

It was the scowling shot, of course, that came to symbolize Churchill's fierce, lonely, three-year-long resistance to the Nazi war machine. If he smiles broadly in the second shot, he has reason enough: The U.S. had just joined the war after Japan's December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. Churchill's North American tour was something of a victory lap, though victory was still another three years away.

If you look around, you'll find the Karsh story told with minor variations, but the essential facts seem to be in place. I sometimes wonder whether Karsh's bold act of cigar removal was as "unconscious," as he described, but most likely it was, more or less. And I think it's the instinctual nature of the act that endears the anecdote to photographers: It speaks of the artistic nature of photography, especially portraiture. Great pictures, Karsh tells us, don't simply result from turning knobs on cameras and opening shutters. It's often a matter of pushing other buttons.

No comments:

Post a Comment