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Lights! Camera! Personality! Karsh of Ottawa Collection

The Karsh of Ottawa Collection

The Karsh of Ottawa Collection, preserved at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, contains 385 pieces of his equipment. It is not a large collection, considering that the eminent photographer took his first image in 1926 and closed his Ottawa studio sixty-six years later, leaving to the National Archives of Canada a legacy of 17 000 portraits and 370 000 negatives.

8×10 bellows Calumet, Karsh’s main camera, draped with a focusing cloth made for Karsh by his assistant and librarian Hella Graber
(CSTM 1997.0319, 1997.0351)

Yet Karsh was interested in the art of photography, not in its technology. He insisted that the techniques of a camera should not enter a discourse on photography, and was reluctant to discuss his equipment. He preferred instead to talk about his adventurous life and the personalities that he photographed. “My spirit has constantly rebelled against the intrusion of the technical equipment with which a photographer must surround himself so obviously and make use of, during a sitting. How much more desirable it would be if all such equipment could be out of sight while the photographer was doing his work!”1

Despite the fact that he did not like to think about his equipment, or perhaps because he wanted to keep it out of mind, Karsh bought the best cameras that he could afford, designed to his specific instructions, and in fact he acquired and used a great number of photographic lights, cameras, and accessories.

Karsh’s camera cases bear witness to the photographer’s many travels, and to the wear that his equipment had to endure. (CSTM 1997.0320 PTS)
At the beginning of his career, Karsh carried with him around the world almost two hundred kilograms of equipment. His large Chrysler automobile was especially adapted to haul the cameras and lights: the back seat was removed and extra storage was installed on the roof. Karsh took the car with him to Europe in the 1940s and 1950s, but most drivers, hired by the photographer to deliver the equipment to the locations of his photographic sessions, were not used to such a large vehicle packed with delicate lights and cameras, and Karsh fired them almost daily.

Finally, Karsh decided to maintain three sets of identical photographic equipment. One set was kept in his studio in Ottawa, a second was stored in New York, and a third set in London. The artifacts now held by the Canada Science and Technology Museum were used in Karsh’s Sparks Street, Chateau Laurier (both located in Ottawa), and New York studios, from the early 1930s until 1992, and many travelled with him around the world.

The collection includes important pieces of Karsh’s photographic gear: lights, cameras, dark room equipment, and retouching accessories. It contains seven lighting units, considered by Karsh to be the most


The Karsh of Ottawa collection contains artifacts ranging from his cameras and lighting units to small accessories and retouching tools.
essential technology among the studio equipment. The Museum holds nine cameras used by Karsh since the 1940s, complete with lenses, tripods, adapter backs, lens hoods, and filters. One of the more interesting objects in the collection is a rare, massive, 1945 Saltzman enlarger, which Karsh ordered for his Sparks Street studio, and then moved to the Chateau Laurier. Other important artifacts include retouching kits, brushes, film hangers, holders and frames, and a large crock in which Karsh mixed ingredients for his gold toner.

1 Yousuf Karsh, In Search of Greatness: Reflections of Yousuf Karsh (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), 104.