Ida Kar: The mid-twentieth century Bohemian photographer of Armenian descent
The Armenian female photographer Ida Kar or Ida Karamian has made a significant contribution to the recognition of photography as a form of fine art. She was pioneering in terms of capturing in her photos some of the most important artists of her generation – including Henry Moore, Georges Braque, and Jean-Paul Sartre. She was the first photographer to have a major retrospective in a big London gallery. She had the photographs enlarged so they were on the same scale as paintings, which got the critics debating whether photography was art.
She was born Ida Karamian or Karamanian at Tambov in Russia on 8 April 1908. Her parents were Armenian; her father taught mathematics and physics. The family moved to Iran when Kar was eight, and to Alexandria in Egypt when she was 13. When she was 20, she went to Paris to study chemistry and medicine, but soon began to study singing instead. She frequented the avant-garde artists and writers of the Parisian Rive Gauche, among them Piet Mondrian and Yves Tanguy, and became interested in socialist politics, photography, and in Surrealism. She was at the first showing in 1929 of Un Chien Andalou by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. Her first work as a photographer was in the studio of the Surrealist photographer and painter Heinrich Heidersberger.
In the late 1930s, she married Edmond Belali, and together they opened a photographic studio, Idabel, in Cairo. There Kar came into contact with Egyptian Surrealists including Ikbal El Alailly and Georges Henein, and with members of the Art and Liberty movement. During the Second World War Kar and Belali participated in two Surrealist exhibitions in Cairo, the second of them in 1944. In the same year, she divorced Belali and married the British poet and art dealer Victor Musgrave; in 1945 they moved to London.
In London Kar came into contact with artists who had been involved with Surrealism, including Paul Nash and E. L. T. Mesens, and began to meet the artists and writers who would be her subjects. She specialized in portraiture, and in 1954 showed “Forty artists from Paris and London” at Gallery One.
Kar visited Armenia in 1957, and the Soviet Union in 1958. In 1959 she again traveled to the Soviet Union, where she photographed Shostakovich and others, to France, where she photographed, among others, Braque and Ionesco, and to East Germany, where an exhibition of her Armenian photographs was held. The National Portrait Gallery in London acquired Kar’s photograph archive in 1999, and in 2011 mounted a major exhibition of her work “Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer 1908–1974”. It was the first time in more than 50 years that her work had been shown and included more than a hundred photographs that had not previously been exhibited.