December 23, 2008 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Yousuf Karsh (Fig. 1), widely recognized as Canada’s leading portrait photographer of the 20th century.
To celebrate this milestone, the Portrait Gallery of Canada (PGC) http://www.portraits.gc.ca/, in collaboration with the Canada Science and Technology Museum (CSTM) http://www.sciencetech.technomuses.ca/, will present Festival Karsh in Ottawa from June 12 to October 12, 2009.
Festival Karsh includes a major exhibition at the CSTM, the Karsh Trail of locations significant to Mr. Karsh’s life and work, the Web site http://www.festivalkarsh.ca/, and a roster of special events and programming. The exhibition will then be available for circulation to museums and galleries until 2012.
Karsh photographed heads of state, celebrities, producing iconic portraits of some of the most notable figures of the 20th century – Winston Churchill (Fig. 2), Andy Warhol, Nelson Mandela, Marshall McLuhan, Audrey Hepburn, Benazir Bhutto and many more. However, throughout his career, he was also known as ‘Karsh of Ottawa’ both as a local photographer and a community leader.
By the time he closed his studio doors at Ottawa’s downtown hotel, the Château Laurier, for the last time in 1992, Yousuf Karsh had created photographic portraits of more than 11,000 leading local, national, and international sitters that spanned six decades. He also welcomed sittings of ordinary residents of the region, such as portraits of debutantes, children, weddings and soldiers, and made passport photos and advertising photographs. His proper name was colloquially transformed into a verb, as his subjects and sitters spoke of ‘being Karshed’.
Aware of the importance of Mr. Karsh’s work to the social history of Ottawa, the exhibition team was very interested in seeing images that might not have been included in the Karsh Fonds at the Portrait Gallery of Canada.
Outreach objectives for both partners included the desire to actively engage the public in Festival Karsh, and to build interest in the exhibition and programming coming in 2009.
The solicitation of personal images for potential inclusion in the exhibition had been part of the exhibition concept from the beginning; however gaining access to numerous private holdings and developing effective procedures to review them presented challenges.
Given the photographer’s sixty-year career, many of his subjects are now quite elderly, which raised the team’s concerns about their comfort level with new technologies. The invitation to Karsh’s subjects, or their descendents, to share their Karsh portraits and to recount the experience of being photographed must necessarily respect their preferred means of communication.
Another challenge was the desire to find a solution that did not unduly weigh down the collaborative teams already committed to developing the main Web presence, the Karsh Trail with its multiple partners, the major exhibition and programming and activities.
Due to the collaborative nature of the initiative, a distinct and autonomous entity presence was desired, clearly associated to the two institutions yet with its own distinct branding
Flickr (Fig. 3), the user engagement Web site specifically conceived to allow people to share images and content, provided the most appropriate means to address these considerations. Establishment of a Flickr Group named My Karsh has allowed people to look at Karsh images and read stories, to comment on these images and stories, and of course to make contributions of their own.
Four images and stories were used to ‘seed’ My Karsh, providing a model for people and an inspiration for their own contributions (Fig. 4). The initiative was launched with a media event on November 27, 2008, where the first four images and stories were shared (Fig. 5).
Multiple methods for participation were devised to ensure equitable access to the experience. Instructions were kept deliberately simple to encourage people to choose among three ways to contribute:
- Those with a Flickr account can add their image and story directly to the My Karsh group.
- People can email their image and story to firstname.lastname@example.org; an administrator adds them to the My Karsh Flickr group.
- People less accustomed to the practices of Web 2.0 can telephone the Portrait Gallery of Canada or send an e-mail to email@example.com; a staff member contacts the individual directly to follow up and ensure that the submitted image is catalogued, scanned, optimized for Web and posted to the Flickr Group.
To ensure appropriate access to both of Canada’s official language communities, both English and French interfaces were created, and the group can also be accessed as Mon Karsh; all Festival Karsh contributions are posted in both official languages and images are tagged in both; individuals engage or comment in the language of their choice.
Within two weeks, 24 people had responded to the call by sharing 60 images. In most cases, the photographs were accompanied by personal memoirs of the experience, or anecdotes about the significance of the portrait within their family histories.
The methods selected to provide materials show a significant preference for using e-mail with attachments. Despite the expectation that traditional communication would be the preferred option, to date less than a third choose it.
- Ten percent used Flickr directly.
- Two-thirds used e-mail to send images that were then posted by the administrator.
- The rest selected the more traditional methods of phoning or writing.
Several typologies can be identified among the My Karsh subjects
- many subjects commissioned their photographs to advance (Fig. 6) or to celebrate their careers (Fig. 7), as a mark of their achievement or their potential
- several people have shared images made over a period of decades, representing multiple generations of their family who have had their portraits made by Mr. Karsh (Fig. 8)
Some unanticipated contributions have complemented the expected portraits by Yousuf Karsh. These contributions and the comments are evidence that the Flickr encourages the creation of genuine communities, each of which interprets the invitation in their own way.
Professional photographers recount their meetings with Mr Karsh as being significant moments that inspired their own careers. The images they have uploaded are their portraits of the great photographer (Fig. 9).
Students of black and white portraiture techniques practice their craft by replicating Karsh’s style in their own work (Fig. 10).
The BE LIKE KARSH meetup has been particularly active, making and sharing pictures that demonstrate that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (Fig. 11).
By the end of January, 92 items had been added by thirty contributors. With the early February launch of the Web site, and the visibility and cross-promotion in the coming months, it is anticipated that Festival Karsh will produce more waves of interest and contributions to My Karsh. The My Karsh community, born on Flickr, continues to grow and evolve, and the user generated content from the virtual exercise will be integrated into the real space exhibition.