________________ CM . . . . Volume XIV Number 14 . . . . March 7, 2008


Photographing Greatness: The Story of Karsh. (Stories of Canada).

Lian Goodall.
Toronto, ON: Napoleon, 2008.
96 pp., hardcover, $20.95.
ISBN 978-1-894917-34-6.

Subject Headings:
Karsh, Yousuf, 1908-2002-Juvenile literature.
Portrait photographers-Canada-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Photographers-Canada-Biography-Juvenile literature.

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Marilynne V. Black.

***½ /4


The Karsh family had long dreamed of being together in Canada. They hoped to have good jobs, and to be somewhere where they believed terrible things would never again happen to Armenians. Yousuf had not seen his parents and brother Jamil for more than twenty years. He had never met his younger brother, Salim, who was born in 1925. One can imagine how much Yousuf wanted to hug his mother, listen to his father's funny stories and to hear about his brother's dreams for the future.

But there was one big problem. His mother Bahia had an eye disease that affected many Armenian survivors, and people with trachoma were not permitted into Canada. Fortunately, as a medical student, brother Jamil knew people who could help, and eventually Bahia was cured.

Another challenge worried Yousuf. How would his parents fit into life in Canada? They didn't speak English or French. Yousuf was so busy working that he was afraid his parents would be lonely.

Goodall adroitly captures the many difficulties faced not only by Yousuf but by all immigrants. She also manages to pack a lot of interesting information into the 100 pages of text. Brief explanations of photographic principles and techniques are clearly explained within the text. She balances reproductions of many of Karsh's photographs with detailed accounts of Karsh's life from his early days, his immigration to Canada, and his life as a famous photographer. Karsh was awarded eight honorary degrees from universities across North America, and he helped create more than a dozen books and received more than a dozen major awards. Over his lifetime, he presided over 11,000 sittings. Karsh did not just photograph the famous such as a young John F. Kennedy, Grey Owl, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Pope Pius XII, and George Bernard Shaw. He also photographed ordinary people such as debutantes, business men and brides as well as two Newfoundland boys blowing bubble gum.

     Goodall also captures Karsh's complex personality. Throughout the text, Karsh's sense of humanity is detailed. Because he personally knew of the hardships faced by immigrants, as an adult and proud Canadian citizen, he helped other newcomers to Canada. "Sometimes Yousuf gave money or advice. He always found a way to use his talents to aid many people." Karsh and his wife, Estrellita, were also very involved with muscular dystrophy.

     Furthermore, the author also manages to include snippets of humor and the lengths to which Karsh would go to obtain a memorable portrait. When photographing Winston Churchill, who was visiting Canada in 1941, Yousuf knew that many photographs already showed Churchill with his cigar. He wanted a different pose. Almost without thinking, he went up to the British prime minister and plucked the cigar out of the surprised man's mouth and put it in an ashtray. Churchill scowled. Yousuf quickly squeezed the bulb of the shutter. Churchill couldn't help laughing at the young man's courage. The resulting photo became known as the famous "Roaring Lion" picture.

     Evidence of Karsh’s strong work ethic is documented in the account of his photographing workers for a calendar for the Atlas Steel Company. The foundry was a noisy, hot and dangerous place. His assistant had to protect him from flying sparks. One camera lens began to melt from the heat, and yet Yousuf was able to capture the workers on film.

     Biographies of famous Canadian are particularly welcome as it is often American heroes and celebrities about whom our children are more aware. Photographing Greatness is one of 11 books in the series, “Stories of Canada,” which highlight the lives of a wide variety of Canadians, including explorers David Thompson and John Rae, musicians and singers Glenn Gould and Portia White, and early pioneers Jeanne Mance and Catherine Parr Traill.

     Because the sketches and Karsh's photographs are in black and white, the pages are somewhat bland. This blandness, however, is offset by the varied placement of text, sketches and photographs. Variety is also achieved by the use of maroon ink for a narrow border around the photographs, for the titles, and the type used in the sidebars. Each double spread includes at least one of these sidebars which elaborate on some aspect of the main text. For instance, in the segment called Citizen of Canada, the sidebar, What is Citizenship? briefly explains the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

     Although the publishers recommended age level is 9 to 12 years of age, I wonder if most children in grade 3 would be interested in this topic. Furthermore, since it is usually slightly older students who are required to do research on famous people, I have indicated the book to be more suitable for them. However, because the text is broken up by many pictures and ample white space, there will always be those younger students who will not be daunted. The book is enhanced by the inclusion of the following addenda: About the Author, two timelines: Yousuf Karsh's Life and Times and Timeline of Famous Photographs, a list of Acknowledgements/Resources, Photo and Art Credits, as well as an index.

Highly Recommended.

Marilynne V. Black is a former B.C. elementary teacher librarian who completed her Master of Arts in Children's Literature (UBC) in the spring of 2005. She is now working as an independent children's literature consultant with a web site at www.heartofthestory.ca.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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