After moving from Tambov, Russia, to Egypt with her Armenian parents in 1921, Ida Kar spent five years in Paris. She had been educated at the prestigious Lycée Français in Alexandra, but her stint on the Left Bank, at age twenty, formed the foundation of her education as an artist. André Breton had written the first Surrealist manifesto there four years earlier, and the city was a hotbed of artistic experimentation. In the studio of a young German photographer named Heinrich Heidersberger, Kar made her first foray into photography. She returned to Egypt in 1933, just as that nation’s artists began developing their own iteration of surrealism (André Breton famously wrote to poet Georges Henelin, in 1936, “The imp of the perverse, as he deigns to appear to me, seems to have one wing here, the other in Egypt”), and dedicated herself to the medium.
When the newly married Kar moved to London in 1945, she wasted little time in initiating her photographic career and cultivating the kind of artistic community she had known in Cairo. She began making high-contrast, tightly cropped commercial portraits of theater actors in 1947; by the end of fifties, her roster of sitters had come to include many of the era’s most significant painters, sculptors, authors, poets, playwrights, and composers, among them T. S. Eliot, Noël Coward, L. S. Lowry, and Somerset Maugham in London; Le Corbusier, Man Ray, Marie Laurencin, and Alberto Giacometti in Paris; and Dmitry Shostakovich, Leonid Leonov, Ernst Neizvestny, and Ilya Ehrenberg in the Soviet Union.
In 1960, Kar mounted a groundbreaking solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London; hers was the first retrospective show of a photographer at a London gallery. Of it, she boasted, “We are going to make this show the most exciting photographic event since ‘The Family of Man.’” The comparison with Edward Steichen’s thorough 1955 survey of documentary photography at New York’s Museum of Modern Art was apt. The Whitechapel show solidified Kar’s reputation as documentarian of cultural life, while rousing critics to debate photography’s aspirations to the level of high art. “I don’t think it is an art,” insisted David Sylvester, a fan of Kar’s work, “because the essence of art is that the artist creates his forms and does not select them: photography reproduces the form.”
Kar proved unmoved by the debate. Until her death in 1974, she continued her work, making sensitive portraits of the St. Ives artistic community, of Fidel Castro and Cuban writers, and of any number of intrepid, purposeful women artists.
Click on the images below to open a gallery of Kar’s photography.
“Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer, 1908–1974” is on view at the National Portrait Gallery, London, through June 19.
All images © National Portrait Gallery, London