Originally published in AGBU News magazine (July 2000)
For decades, the names of Karsh and Cavouk continue to evoke a world-standard of photography paralleled by few. Together the two familial dynasties have documented the who’s who of the twentieth century and the timeless images of Canada. Today, Malak Karsh and Onnig Cavouk work within their family’s great traditions and continue to guarantee a prominent place for Armenian-Canadian photography in the national psyche.
Originally from the Arabic-speaking city of Mardin in Anatolia, the brothers Yousuf and Malak Karsh found their way to Canada through a chain of immigration begun by their great uncle Aziz Setlakwé — one of the first known Armenian settlers in the province of Quebec. Malak Karsh explains, “Aziz Nakash, a nephew of my great uncle, became a well-known portrait photographer in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Uncle Nakash brought Yousuf to Canada and taught him his craft. He encouraged Yousuf to go to Boston and study with the Armenian master Garo. When he returned to Canada in 1932, Yousuf strategically opened his studio in Ottawa, because he insisted he wanted to photograph the greats of the world and the nation’s capital would offer that opportunity. Over the years, he developed friendships with many world leaders.”
Yousuf Karsh’s iconic images of Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Georgia O’Keefe and Henry Kissinger, to name a few, have become as famous as the personalities themselves. While Yousuf retired a few years ago and chose to withdraw from public life, Malak continues to work in his beloved Ottawa and photograph the country he has grown to love.
Though never receiving the popular fame which his brother garnered at every turn, Malak doesn’t mind living in his brother’s shadow. He even jokes that Yousuf has introduced himself to friends on a number of occasions as Malak’s brother.
Malak is best remembered for his 1963 photograph entitled, “Paper and Politics,” an image that has been reproduced over 3.5 billion times on the back of the Canadian dollar bill (a distinction which ended only in 1987 when it was replaced by a dollar coin). The image reflects both the artist’s keen eye for classical composition and appreciation of things uniquely Canadian. Coincidentally, Yousuf’s photo of Queen Elizabeth II graced the front of the same bill.
Malak’s love affair with his adopted homeland began when he first arrived in 1937, “I knew you could make a living easily. There was freedom and no persecution. I came knowing the ideal way of life could be found in this country.”
Malak learned quickly under the tutelage of his brother, but from the beginning it was obvious his eye was focused on subjects other than portraiture. “I arrived in Canada in October and Yousuf took me out to the wilderness and I saw the leaves turn red. I thought it was wonderful to fall in love with a country where the colors in nature were so intense. In the back of my mind, I already dreamt of being a photographer who traveled cross-country,” he says. Eager to forge an independent artistic identity, he made the decision early on to use his distinctive first name so as not to be confused with his brother, who was commonly referred to as “Karsh of Ottawa.”
After his three and a half years of apprenticeship, the brothers both realized Malak’s calling was not confined to the studio and they placed a local ad for an artistic secretary. A young woman named Barbara Holmes applied for the position and soon stole Malak’s heart.
“She started working for me and when during the Second World War she was called to work overseas by the Red Cross, I called her commanding officer,” he says and continues in a shy tone. “I told him that she couldn’t go because we were to be married–this was before she knew of my wish to propose. I tried myself to enlist but was rejected on account of my flat feet. As a result, we married and both of us spent the war years in Canada.”
But shortly after, Malak encountered misfortune during his first major assignment for The Toronto Star Weekly in Ontario’s hinterlands. Catching pneumonia during a story about record setting cold weather he developed tuberculosis, which Canadian doctors believe Malak originally contracted in Syria. Malak spent the remainder of the war infirmed in a sanitarium.
It wouldn’t be the first time Malak would confront his mortality while he “thought photographically” — a term he himself uses to describe his single-minded quest for ideal compositions. At a British Columbia aluminum factory after his recovery, he sent his guide into quivers when he accidentally stepped onto poured aluminum that fortunately for him had been cooling for days. Then in Quebec, he coached lumberjacks into holding his ladder on a log in the midst of a log drive so that he could find the ideal angle. “When I fell in, all the loggers could remember seeing were my arms straining to keep my cameras above water.”
Soon assignments began to flow in, but the big break that would establish his national reputation was still to come.
Upon her return to her native country Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, who found refuge in Canada during the war, arranged for 100,000 tulip bulbs to be sent as a thank you gesture to Ottawa. This opportunity changed Malak’s life forever.
“The first photos I took of the nation’s capital awash in a sea of tulips were published internationally. At the time, people were tired of images of war and wanted something new. My photos were so successful that they captured the public imagination and sold the entire nation on the idea of tulips,” he says of his greatest achievement. The Netherlands Flower Bulb Institute quickly took notice and hired him to supply promotional photos for the organization’s North American operations.
But Malak’s creativity and initiative did not end there. In 1952, Malak inaugurated plans for a Canadian Tulip Festival in the nation’s capital that would showcase the city while attracting tourists internationally. Today, the festival generates over 20 million dollars of annual revenue and has paved the way for other festivals that have built on its success. As a symbol of recognition for Malak’s tireless work, the Dutch institute honored him with a tulip that carries his name.
He would go on to publish books on the Canadian Parliament buildings and his beloved Ottawa, freelance for numerous magazines, promote the Canadian Pulp and Paper Industry and create educational projects for schools across the nation. With a fierce pride in his adopted land, Malak is thankful that Canadians have continued to embrace his work over the decades.
But in a life filled with creative success and national acclaim, he continues to remember one day in 1995 as the proudest moment in his life. On that day, Malak and his cousin Raymond Setlakw?, a prominent Quebec businessman, were awarded Canada’s highest civilian honor, the Order of Canada–an award also received by his brother Yousuf.
“It was an unforgettable day as the two of us were being simultaneously recognized for our accomplishments. Days before the ceremony I spoke to my cousin and it seems that we were both shy about telling the other of our expected award. When we realized that we were both recipients we laughed and it all meant much more,” he says.
Over 80, his work continues to evolve and new subjects arise daily. Barbara, who continues to be his faithful secretary, hopes that one day Malak will fulfill his promise to retire, but until that day the artist’s creative fire continues to burn. “If a photographer says that he has photographed everything, then he’s not realistic,” he insists. For Malak there is still much to learn and teach through photography.
What has Malak learned from Canada? “Canadians have a solid sense of friendship and hospitality. There is no feeling of superiority in Canada and as a result they are accepting of others. This is a mark of a great civilization. We are all lucky to be in Canada and people who are born here don’t appreciate it,” he says and then punctuates his answer with a smile.
Canada has also offered a safe haven for the nation’s other great photographic family, the Cavouks. When clients enter the studio of Onnig Cavouk they are entering a treasure trove of historic photos, medals and artifacts. Each client is offered a cup of Armenian coffee that the photographer assures will soothe the most reluctant subject. He coyly admits, “I’m only as a good as they let me be.”
The modern day Cavouk myth begins with Assadour Cavoukian. A painter who gained his family’s freedom with a portrait of the Turkish leader, Jemal Pasha, at a time when Armenians desperately sought ways to escape the horrors of 1915. When Jemal saw the finished portrait he allowed the family safe passage out and after a brief stay in Jerusalem to repair 78 paintings at the Cathedral of St. James the family settled in Egypt. It was in Cairo that his grandfather established the first Cavouk photo studio and through his contacts with Jemal Pasha acquired a prominent clientele that included the likes of King Fouad of Egypt.
Onnig remembers his grandfather as one of the nicest men he ever met. “He used to put me on his lap and tell stories of all the places he had visited. He taught me that the eyes are the windows to the soul, it was as if I was ordained to follow in my father’s footsteps,” he says.
Harootune (Artin), Onnig’s father, commonly referred to as simply Cavouk, was the next to explore the evolving terrain of photography. “My father was a genius in this industry. Every time there was something new he wanted to experiment with it. When color emerged he knew it would give his work another dimension,” Onnig says.
But during the nationalization of Egypt in the 1950’s many Armenians, including the Cavouks, escaped to the West. Soon the family arrived in Toronto and a chance happening insured the continued success of the Cavouk studio.
“In Egypt, one day a green 1958 Chevrolet arrived from the Canadian Embassy. The Ambassador and First Secretary had come to be photographed. When my dad arrived in Canada he exhibited those photos, along with others, in a hotel near his studio.
“My mom remembered that one day a woman dressed in minks arrived at the studio and said she had seen a picture of her son in the exhibit. My parents’ English wasn’t great but they soon understood that the woman’s name was Kilgore and her son was the First Secretary. She offered to temporarily replac the paintings in her Rosedale home, Toronto’s elite neighborhood, with 25 Cavouk photos and invite the who’s who of Ontario.” And so began the Canadian chapter of the Cavouk legacy.
In 1963, Onnig’s father asked him as the eldest son to help him with the family business. Onnig was at first reluctant and explains, “Against my better judgement I quit school and joined my dad. Within the first year we had already photographed the Shah and Empress of Iran.”
The Iranian royals were only one of an impressive list of clients that included: U.S. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip. But the one individual who most impressed Onnig was the Queen Mother whom he met in 1965.
“I used to be very shy in those days so I withdrew to the corner of the room and watched my parents greet the Queen Mum. They must have told her about me because soon she walked across the room and shook my hand saying, “I understand you just recently joined your parents’ business.” She asked me about photography and I got the feeling she knew more about it than I did. When she finished she came, shook my hand and wished me well in my new profession. I was really touched. She used the portrait as her Christmas card that year,” he says.
Onnig remembers the years of working with his father were an incredible learning experience. When his parents died in 1995, within hours of each other, Cavouk decided that he needed to rediscover his heritage.
“I used to hate tradition. I guess we all want to rebel to some extent. But now that they’re gone, I’m rediscovering my roots,” he says.
Onnig’s need to learn more about his past led him to Armenia. “I’ve gone four times since my parents passed away, and I was surprised to discover that the Cavouk name is better known in Armenia than here. Between my grandfather, my father and I, we have photographed almost every head of state in Armenia and every Catholicos in the last century.”
Within the last few years he has had the opportunity to photograph President Kocharian and his wife, His Holiness Karekin II, Catholicos of All Armenians, and last year he photographed the treasures of the Sardarabad Museum. “The artifact photos turned out quite well and when I returned to Armenia the Catholicos told me he wanted me to photograph the antiquities in Etchmiadzin, a project I could only dream of completing,” he says about his newfound passion.
Onnig Cavouk is particularly pleased about the future prospect that one of his children, Kristin, will foster her interest in photography. “She seems interested in her Armenian heritage and has worked in Armenia through the U.S. Peace Corps. She returned from one visit to historic Armenia and I was greatly impressed by the photos she had taken. I dream of the day when we will be able to go together to historic Armenia and photograph the monuments,” he says with a glimmer in his eye.
If the critic John Berger was right when he said, “All photographs are there to remind us of what we forget,” then the Armenian talent for photography is no surprise. Two generations of Karshs and three generations of Cavouks can already boast that they have built impressive artistic legacies that will live on for generations to come.