Yousuf Karsh is the most renowned portrait photographer of our time. He has perceptively photographed the statesmen, artists, and literary and scientific figures that have shaped our lives in the 20th century. Known for his ability to transform "the human face into legend,"
many of the portraits that he created have become virtually the image of the great man or woman they portray, whether Winston Churchill
, Ernest Hemingway
, Albert Einstein
, Georgia O'Keefe
or Helen Keller
In other words, "to experience a Karsh photograph is to feel in the presence of history itself."
His photographs are in major private and public collections throughout the world, the Museum of Fine Arts
in Boston holding the largest collection in the US.
Source: Weston Gallery
Yousuf Karsh was an Armenian-Canadian photographer and one of the most famous and accomplished portrait photographers of all time. ousuf or Josuf (his given Armenian name was Hovsep) Karsh was born in Mardin, a city in the eastern Ottoman Empire (present Turkey). He grew up during the Armenian Genocide where he wrote, "I saw relatives massacred; my sister died of starvation as we were driven from village to village."
At the age of 16, his parents sent Yousuf to live with his uncle George Nakash, a photographer in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. Karsh briefly attended school there and assisted in his uncle’s studio. Nakash saw great potential in his nephew and in 1928 arranged for Karsh to apprentice with portrait photographer John Garo
in Boston, Massachusetts, United States. His brother, Malak Karsh
, was also a photographer famous for the image of logs floating down the river on the Canadian one dollar bill. Karsh returned to Canada four years later, eager to make his mark.
In 1931 he started working with another photographer, John Powls
, in his studio on the second floor of the Hardy Arcade at 130 Sparks Street in Ottawa, Ontario, close to Parliament Hill. When Powls retired in 1933, Karsh took over the studio. Karsh's first solo exhibition was in 1936 in the Drawing Room of the Château Laurier hotel. He moved his studio into the hotel in 1973, and it remained there until he retired in 1992. Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King discovered Karsh and arranged introductions with visiting dignitaries for portrait sittings.
Karsh's work attracted the attention of varied celebrities, but his place in history was sealed on 30 December 1941 when he photographed Winston Churchill, after Churchill gave a speech to Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa. The image of Churchill brought Karsh international prominence and is claimed to be the most reproduced photographic portrait in history. In 1967, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 1990 was promoted to Companion. Of the 100 most notable people of the century, named by the International Who's Who , Karsh had photographed 51. Karsh was also the only Canadian to make the list.
Karsh was a master of studio lights. One of Karsh's distinctive practices was lighting the subject's hands separately. He photographed many of the great and celebrated personalities of his generation. Throughout most of his career he used the 8×10 bellows Calumet (1997.0319) camera, made circa 1940 in Chicago. Journalist George Perry
wrote in the British paper The Sunday Times
that "when the famous start thinking of immortality, they call for Karsh of Ottawa."
Karsh had a gift for capturing the essence of his subject in the instant of his portrait. As Karsh wrote of his own work in Karsh Portfolio in 1967, "Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer, it is my task to reveal it if I can. The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize."
Karsh said "My chief joy is to photograph the great in heart, in mind, and in spirit, whether they be famous or humble."
His work is in permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada
, New York's Museum of Modern Art
and Metropolitan Museum of Art
, George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film
, Bibliothèque Nationale de France
, the National Portrait Gallery
in London, the National Portrait Gallery of Australia
and many others.
Library and Archives Canada
holds his complete collection, including negatives, prints and documents. His photographic equipment was donated to the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa. Karsh published 15 books of his photographs, which include brief descriptions of the sessions, during which he would ask questions and talk with his subjects to relax them as he composed the portrait. Some famous subjects photographed by Karsh were Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke
, Muhammad Ali
, Marian Anderson
, W. H. Auden
, Joan Baez
, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto
, Humphrey Bogart
, Alexander Calder
, Pablo Casals
, Fidel Castro
, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek
, Joan Crawford
, Ruth Draper
, Albert Einstein
, Dwight Eisenhower
, Princess Elizabeth
, Robert Frost
, Clark Gable
, Indira Gandhi
, Grey Owl
, Ernest Hemingway
, Audrey Hepburn
, Pope John Paul II
, Chuck Jones
, Carl Jung
, Helen Keller
and Polly Thompson
, Grace Kelly
, Jacqueline Kennedy
, John F. Kennedy
, Peter Lorre
, Pandit Nehru
, Georgia O'Keeffe
, Laurence Olivier
, General Pershing
, Pablo Picasso
, Pope Pius XII
, Prince Rainier of Monaco
, Paul Robeson
, the rock band Rush, Albert Schweitzer
, George Bernard Shaw
, Jean Sibelius
, Pierre Elliott Trudeau
, Andy Warhol
, Frank Lloyd Wright
, and, arguably his most famous portrait subject, Winston Churchill
The story is often told of how Karsh created his famous portrait of Churchill during the early years of World War II. Churchill, the British prime minister, had just addressed the Canadian Parliament and Karsh was there to record one of the century's great leaders. "He was in no mood for portraiture and two minutes were all that he would allow me as he passed from the House of Commons chamber to an anteroom,"
Karsh wrote in Faces of Our Time
. "Two niggardly minutes in which I must try to put on film a man who had already written or inspired a library of books, baffled all his biographers, filled the world with his fame, and me, on this occasion, with dread."
Churchill marched into the room scowling, "regarding my camera as he might regard the German enemy."
His expression suited Karsh perfectly, but the cigar stuck between his teeth seemed incompatible with such a solemn and formal occasion. "Instinctively, I removed the cigar. At this the Churchillian scowl deepened, the head was thrust forward belligerently, and the hand placed on the hip in an attitude of anger."
The image captured Churchill and the Britain of the time perfectly — defiant and unconquerable. Churchill later said to him, "You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed."
As such, Karsh titled the photograph, The Roaring Lion
. However, Karsh's favourite photograph was the one taken immediately after this one where Churchill's mood had lightened considerably and is shown much in the same pose, but smiling.
In the late 1990s Karsh moved to Boston and on July 13, 2002, aged 93, he died at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital after complications following surgery. He was interred in Notre Dame Cemetery in Ottawa.