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Lights! Camera! Personality! Karsh of Ottawa Collection


Karsh donated nine of his cameras to the Museum, including his principal 8×10 Calumet, and the Calumet from the New York studio, a Graflex Graphic View, two Gowlandflex cameras, a Cine-Kodak, a Plaubel Peco Universal III, an Olympus, and a Polaroid. Throughout his career, Karsh chose to use large, studio cameras. Although his first images were printed in magazines, and many of his photographs were commissioned by Saturday Night, Time (both U.S. and Canadian editions), Life, and Maclean’s, the Canadian weekly news magazine, Karsh never wanted to be associated with photojournalism. He was an artist, and his choice of equipment emphasized that fact.

This 8×10 bellows Calumet was Karsh’s main camera. (CSTM 1997.0319)

The 8×10 bellows Calumet (1997.0319), made in 1956 in Chicago, was Karsh’s main camera. He used it for more than three decades, first in his Sparks Street studio, and then in the Chateau Laurier studio. For many years he took this camera or its New York twin (1998.0051) across North America and to Europe. With the Calumets Karsh photographed Canadian prime ministers from Diefenbaker to Chrétien, as well as Ernest Hemingway, Mother Teresa, Margaret Atwood, Marc Chagall and many other personalities. Although Karsh took most of his pictures in 8×10 format, the camera had a removable back and could have been adjusted to 2×4 and 5×7 formats. The camera was painted a pale grey, almost white.
The focusing cloth made for Karsh by his technician and librarian Hella Graber (CSTM 1997.0351)
Karsh explained that “[a] camera need not look funereal.”4 Hella Graber made a focusing cloth (1997.0351), which Karsh liked to drape loosely over the Calumet. The cloth was sewn from rich burgundy velvet with a gold lining; Hella embroidered it with Karsh’s initials. Karsh furnished the Calumet with his favourite lens (1997.0340),


This Commercial Ektar lens made by the Eastman Kodak Company in the 1940s was used with Karsh’s main camera. (CSTM 1997.0340)
a 14-inch Commercial Ektar made by the Eastman Kodak Company in the 1940s. The lens board was also painted light grey to match the body of the Calumet. The camera (1998.0051) used in Karsh’s New York studio was identical to the Ottawa Calumet, and was also fitted with a 14-inch Commercial Ektar lens (1998.0052). During a typical sitting, the 8×10 camera was set up on the floating action tripod made by Davis & Sanford Company Inc. (1997.0310). Karsh preferred the tripod leg with the manufacturer’s plate facing the subject. Each leg of the tripod was raised to approximately one metre.

During the photo session, once the lighting units and the camera were adjusted, Karsh devoted his entire attention to the subject, depending on the assistant to set the shutter speed and f-stop, and to change the film. Meanwhile, Karsh continued the conversation with the subject, keeping his finger on the cable release to click the shutter at just the right moment.

Rear Window (Gow Crapper of Ford of Canada), 1951; taken at the Ford of Canada factory, this image displays elements characteristic to Karsh’s art: precise lighting, carefully posed model, and masterful framing.
(Courtesy J. Fielder)

Karsh was, foremost, a portrait photographer, but sometimes he accepted commissions from large companies for promotional photographs.
In addition to his Calumet, Karsh used the Monorail Graphic View camera to take photographs while travelling. (CSTM 1997.0320)
He placed a high price on this service. For a two-week session in 1951, Karsh charged Ford of Canada a $10,000 fee, when the average wage of a Ford factory worker was $1.33 per hour. Even in this milieu, Karsh arranged the scenery and carefully selected workers for the photographs. He styled the images in his typical portrait style, posing them with lights, and framing with the lens of his Calumet.

Santa Croce di Jerusaleme, 1959, taken with the Monorail Graphic View camera (Courtesy J. Fielder)

In addition to the Calumets, when shooting on location Karsh used a 4×5 Monorail Graphic View camera (1997.0320) made by the Folmer Graflex Corporation circa 1940. The camera was fitted with a 3-5/8-inch W.A. Dagor F:8 lens, made by C. P. Goerz (1997.0343). Karsh took images of Bishop Sheen and Jerry Cunningham, for the book This is Rome published in 1960, with the Monorail Graphic View.

A Gowlandflex customized to Karsh’s specifications (CSTM 1997.0322)

Karsh’s cameras were usually custom-made to his specific instructions. For example, when he ordered two Gowlandflex cameras (1997.0322, 1997.0323) from Gowland Limited in 1972, he specified that the cameras were to include Gowlandflex body #830, and a Wide Angle 4×5 body; 180-mm Xenar in barrel and 180-mm Symmar Prontor lenses; special 5×5 Ektalite lens with matte finish; two Super Angulon 90-mm lenses; a Graflock back and focus panel; interchangeable focusing hoods made of rubber; and a magnifying glass showing a right-side-up image. But even though he was so specific when he purchased the Gowlandflex cameras, Karsh rarely used them, preferring instead his studio Calumets. Other cameras in the collection, such as a Monorail Plaubel (1997.0324), a 1937 Magazine Cine-Kodak (1997.0345), and a 35-mm XA3 Olympus (1997.0344), were also seldom used.

The collection also includes a Sonar Onestep SX-70 Polaroid camera (1997.0346) made in 1980, though little is known of its provenance. In the late 1970s Karsh was invited by Polaroid to test its 20×24 camera, which stood 1.5 metres and weighed over one hundred kilograms. He was very impressed by the camera, but did not purchase it. Perhaps the SX-70 was a gift from Polaroid? Karsh was never seen using it, although he would sometimes employ Polaroid film holders (1997.0347, 1997.0348) with his studio cameras to take test shots prior to a session.

4 Karsh: The Searching Eye (Toronto: CBC, 1986), 105.