When I was a teenager, one of my heroes was Yousof “Karsh of Ottawa”.
I followed him, collected cuttings of his photographs from magazines – primarily Life & Look, I think…although his images also regularly appeared on the front pages of most newspapers worldwide. There was a time I actually wanted to be him and adopted his style – although I thought his name Karsh sounded too harsh. He seemed to photograph anybody who was somebody. He photographed filmstars & celebrities and every politician worthy of the name.
[the following is sourced from Wikipedia] Yousuf 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 a time when he as a child and he and his family witnessed the great famine of the period and the ensuing 1918 pandemic along with the atrocities and severely harsh measurements of deportation by the authorities on the Armenian minorities living in the Ottoman Empire, the so called “the sick man of Europe” then. He later wrote, “I saw relatives massacred; my sister died of starvation as we were driven from village to village.” At the age of 14, he fled with his family to Syria to escape persecution. Two years later, 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.
Yousuf Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill on cover of Life magazine.
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.
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.
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, Bibliotheque 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.
To celebrate Yousuf Karsh and his artistic genius, Canada Post issued three stamps on the 100th anniversary of his birth, which was May 21, 2008. The international rate stamp ($1.60) features the photograph that made Karsh famous. It’s a portrait taken of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill when he visited Ottawa in 1941. The other two stamps feature actress Audrey Hepburn (96¢), and a self-portrait of Karsh at work (52¢). All three stamp images were reproduced from photographs in the collection of Library and Archives Canada, located in Ottawa, the city that Karsh called home for many years.
Some famous subjects photographed by Karsh were
- Musicians, Artists, Writers & Sports Stars :
- Pablo Casals,
- George Bernard Shaw,
- Jean Sibelius,
- Muhammad Ali,
- Marian Anderson,
- W. H. Auden,
- Joan Baez,
- Ernest Hemingway,
- Audrey Hepburn,
- Humphrey Bogart,
- Alexander Calder,
- Joan Crawford,
- Grace Kelly,
- Andy Warhol,
- Ruth Draper
- Robert Frost,
- Clark Gable
- Chuck Jones,
- Georgia O’Keeffe,
- Laurence Olivier,
- Peter Lorre, and,
- Eminent Persons & Politicians:
- Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke,
- Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto,
- Fidel Castro,
- Madame Chiang Kai-Shek,
- Albert Einstein,
- Dwight Eisenhower,
- Princess Elizabeth,
- Indira Gandhi,
- Grey Owl,
- Pope John Paul II,
- Carl Jung,
- Helen Keller and Polly Thompson,
- Jacqueline Kennedy,
- John F. Kennedy,
- Pandit Nehru,
- General Pershing,
- Pablo Picasso,
- Pope Pius XII,
- Prince Rainier of Monaco,
- Paul Robeson,
- the rock band Rush,
- Albert Schweitzer,
- Pierre Elliott Trudeau,
- Frank Lloyd Wright,
- and, arguably his most famous portrait subject, Winston Churchill.
- Faces of destiny; portraits by Karsh (1946)
- Canada: as seen by the camera of Yousuf Karsh and described in words by John Fisher (1960)
- In search of greatness; reflections of Yousuf Karsh (1962)
- Karsh portfolio (1967)
- portraits by Karsh (1968)
- Faces of Our Time (1971)
- Karsh portraits (1976)
- Karsh Canadians (1978)
- Karsh: a fifty-year retrospective (1983)
- Karsh: American legends (1992)
- Portrait in Light and Shadow: the Life of Yousuf Karsh (2007)
- “Karsh 100: A Biography in Images” (MFA Publications, 2004)
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