Gift celebrates photographer’s Armenian heritage

The donated photos include Yousef Karsh's original portrait of Martha Graham. The donated photos include Yousef Karsh's original portrait of Martha Graham. (Estrellita Karsh and The Armenian Library and Museum of Americaof America)
By Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / September 15, 2011

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WATERTOWN - The photos are iconic, intimate portraits of many of the most important figures of the 20th century: Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Queen Elizabeth, Martin Luther King Jr.

Yet few know that the photographer, Yousef Karsh, who died in 2002 at age 93, was an Armenian who narrowly escaped the genocide in his homeland that killed an estimated 1 million living in the Ottoman Empire between 1915 and 1920.

He immigrated to Canada as a boy, and came to Boston as a young man in the 1920s to apprentice with a legendary portrait photographer, John H. Garo, whose Back Bay studio would become, Karsh wrote later, “my university.’’

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public Library have featured Karsh’s work in recent years, but when it came to choosing a permanent home for nearly 30 original portraits, Karsh’s widow chose to donate them to the Armenian Library and Museum of America in Watertown for its permanent collection.

The library and museum had originally asked only for a loan of several portraits, but Estrellita Karsh decided to make the photos a gift.

“Yousef was so proud of his heritage,’’ she said. “He was a citizen of the world, but enormously proud of being Armenian.’’

The 40-year-old library and museum - the largest of its kind in the world outside of Armenia - is using the serendipity of Karsh’s gift to transform its main gallery into an open, airy, modern space to showcase his work in a new permanent collection.

“Armenians are proud of Karsh’s work, and he is an internationally admired photographer,“ said Michele Kolligian, an executive vice president of the museum’s board. “We want to bring non-Armenians in . . . to share Karsh’s Armenian heritage, and show it to people who might never have come here otherwise.’’

Designed by art consultant Keith Crippen, the exhibition “Celebrating Humanity’’ will occupy a windowfront gallery as part of the museum’s $500,000 renovation project, featuring state-of-the-art lighting, secure display spaces, and soaring ceilings. A new streamlined welcome desk will greet visitors at the building’s Main Street entrance in Watertown Square.

It will open with a black-tie gala benefit in Boston tomorrow, and a reception at the museum Saturday. It is hoped the Armenian ambassador to the United States will attend, Kolligian said.

Curator Gary Lind-Sinanian said that the Karsh gift and the renovations it has inspired are among the biggest challenges he’s faced in his two-decade-long career at the museum.

“We are transforming a small ethnic museum into an art museum, which is very exciting,’’ Lind-Sinanian said while showing visitors the new space.

The revamped space will have improved climate-controlled curatorial glass cases and security provisions making it possible to feature one of museum’s most important treasures - an Armenian synoptic gospel from 1207.

The object is revered for its age and rarity, but also because in Armenian households, holy books were treated as family members, as blessed and miraculous items.

The museum’s other collections, which include extensive textiles, books, statues, musical instruments, and other artifacts, as well as a historical overview of the genocide, will also be featured, he said.

Haig Der Manuelian, chairman of the board and a founding member of the Armenian Library and Museum of America, said the museum is eager to highlight the accomplishments of contemporary Armenian-Americans, along with the necessary homage to the past.

Karsh is good example of an Armenian who treasured his heritage despite living most of his life in the United States and Canada, Der Manuelian said.

Estrellita Karsh said her husband would have been pleased to see his work transforming the Watertown museum.

“They are embracing their great past and moving forward into the 21st century,’’ she said of the museum. “The show’s name, ‘Celebrating Humanity,’ is exactly what he most valued in the world.’’

Erica Noonan can be reached at

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