This Week in Armenian History

Death of Ida Kar (December 24, 1974)

Ida Kar was a photographer active mainly in London after 1945. She made a significant contribution to the recognition of photography as a form of fine art with her solo show in 1960.  

Kar was born Ida Karamian in Tambov, Russia, on April 8, 1908. Her father was a professor of mathematics and physics. The family moved to Iran in 1916 and to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1921. She studied at the Lycée Français there and went to Paris in 1928 to study chemistry and medicine, but soon began to study singing instead. 

She frequented the avantgarde circles of artists and writers of the Parisian Rive Gauche, and became interested in politics, photography, and Surrealism. He obtained her first work as a photographer in the studio of Surrealist photographer and painter Heinrich Heidersberger. 

Ida Kar returned to Alexandria in 1933, and married Edmond Belali later in the decade. Together they opened a photographic studio, Idabel, in Cairo, where Kar encountered Egyptian Surrealists and members of the Art and Liberty movement. During World War II, husband and wife participated in two Surrealist exhibitions in Cairo. In 1944 they divorced, and Kar married British poet and art dealer Victor Musgrave (1919-1984), who was in the Royal Air Force at the time. They moved to London in 1945. 

In London, she specialized in portraiture, and in 1954 showed “Forty Artists from Paris and London” at Gallery One, the gallery her husband had opened in Soho the previous year.  

Kar visited Armenia in 1957 and 1962, and the Soviet Union in 1958 and 1959. In her second visit she photographed composer Dmitri Shostakovich. In the same year, she traveled to France, where she photographed painter Georges Braque and playwright Eugene Ionesco, and to East Germany, where she had an exhibition of her Armenian photographs. The height of her success was her well-received Whitechapel Gallery one-person show in 1960, which was the first of its kind to be held in a major public gallery in London. Her most celebrated portraits document the bohemian social circle of artists and writers in which she moved. 

In 1968, Kar advertised for an assistant in the British Journal of Photography, and formed a group with three of the applicants, Leslie Smithers, Lawrence Ellar and John Couzins, which was called KarSEC, from her name and their initials. The group was shortlived and dissolved in 1969. 

The photographer passed away in London, on December 24, 1974. The National Portrait Gallery acquired Kar’s photograph archive in 1999 and mounted a major exhibition of her work in 2011. Ida Kar: Bohemian Photographer 1908-1974 was the first show of her work in more than fifty years and included more than a hundred photographs that had not been previously exhibited.