In 1949, when he was photographing a Shell Oil executive in London, Yousuf Karsh overheard his subject taking a call from Finland. The caller was Jean Sibelius, the reclusive Finnish composer, of whom Karsh had always wanted to take a photo. Karsh was already famous in the English-speaking world, but not well-known on the continent, and he requested the oilman to make arrangements for him to travel to Sibelius’ villa in Lake Tuusula. Karsh remembered their session:
“I arrived at Sibelius’s home “Ainola,” named for his wife Aino, laden with gifts from his admirers – an inscribed manuscript from composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, a warm letter from Olin Downes, the celebrated music critic of the New York Times, a box of his favorite cigars and a bottle of old cognac from the Canadian High Commissioner in London. This last we shared with little Finnish cookies and coffee. His daughter interpreted for the straight-backed patriarch of eighty-four, although there was such a meeting of minds that words became scarcely necessary. The structure of his face reminded me of carved granite, yet with infinite warmth and humanity. This photograph was one of the last taken. He was visibly moved as I told him how the Finnish workers, in their northern Canadian logging camps, doubled their wartime output when his Finlandia was played for them.”
Sibelius had semi-retired from conducting and composing since the late 1920s. He led a lowkey life during the Second World War [during which Britain and Finland became only two democracies in history to ever declare war on each other] and spent his last years quietly obsessing over an eighth symphony he would never get around to composing. By 1949, when he met Karsh, his health was failing. His hands shook, his speech slurred, but the aged composer himself was enthusiastic about session with Karsh. He ran a powerline from the road to his house for Karsh’s floodlights and gave the photographer two whole days for photos. He told Karsh that it was his ‘last chance at a good photograph’.
He was not far wrong. Sibelius died in 1957, at the age of 91.
This post was suggested over Twitter by Sami Haapavaara (@SHaapavaara). I will be crowdsourcing topics of my next few posts via Twitter and comments. My next few posts will be on readers’ suggestions. What I am thinking: some iconic photo-related topic I will have fun researching. Best.