Yousuf Karsh, who died in Boston in July 2002 aged 93, is popularly known as the great camera portraitist of the most esteemed world figures and celebrities of the mid to late 20th century. His subjects included politicians, religious leaders, royalty, artists, writers, dancers, actors, singers, musicians, explorers, scientists and physicians. Born in 1908 to Armenian parents in Mardin, Turkey, Yousuf Karsh had first-hand experience of political strife when the Turks persecuted his family. Travelling alone across the world in 1924 at the age of sixteen, Karsh was able to immigrate to Canada where his uncle, George Nakash, had a portrait photography studio in Quebec. Karsh first trained with his uncle and then in Boston in the portrait studio of fellow Armenian John H. Garo. Karsh moved back to Ottawa in 1932, where he established his own studio. From the 1970s until he retired in 1994, Karsh had his studio in the lavish Chateau Laurier, a landmark building in the best street in Ottawa. Karsh’s mentor, John Garo, had made rather soft, idealised romantic portraits in the prevailing style of art photography, but Karsh developed his own modern look with dramatic, sharp and strongly lit close-ups. Karsh’s experience with stage lighting as a member of the Ottawa Little Theatre was a factor in his technique, and through this theatrical circle he made political and social contacts that led to clients for his business.
From as early as 1936 Karsh was becoming known for his modern portraits of visiting statesmen and dignitaries, who were often set against a darkened background, spot-lit like actors on a stage, and shown close-up revealing every detail of hair, skin and clothes. He used large format cameras with up to 8 x 10 plates and huge banks of lights to transform his subjects. Karsh’s international reputation was made when his portrait of British prime minister Winston Churchill — then in Ottawa for a political meeting during World War II — was used on the cover of Life magazine in December 1941.1 According to legend, Karsh whipped Churchill’s beloved cigar out of his mouth a moment before making his exposure. (By contrast Karsh would later persuade the formidable USSR leader Nikita S. Khrushchev to don his native headgear of a Siberian fur hood and smile like a jolly Santa Claus.) The portrait of Churchill became the iconic image of the wartime leader and was even the model for his portrait in Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in London. Churchill is not ‘scowling’, as the image is so often described, and its success surely had more to do with making the not very photogenic Churchill exude the right mix of concern, bullying strength and vision. These were the qualities then needed to reassure the public across the Commonwealth as they faced their enemies in Europe.
Although Karsh credited his beloved mother with being an inspiration to his work, he did not return to Armenia until late in life. From the time of his success with the Churchill portrait, Karsh did, however, spend much of his life travelling across the world to photograph the good, the great and the gifted among world figures, or ‘people of consequence’ as he called them. He produced numerous publications, beginning with Faces of Destiny in 1946. Signing himself ‘Karsh of Ottawa’, the photographer became a celebrity in his own right and world leaders felt slighted if not selected to be ‘Karshed’. In many cases Karsh’s camera portrait became the best known image of the subject. Karsh, a devout Catholic, had a belief in individual greatness and in role models in society. This was perhaps fuelled by his knowledge, gained early in life, of how cruel human beings could be to each other. Although his sitters were mostly commissioned portraits, there is a sense in which Karsh put his own imprimatur on a pantheon of well-known people whom he saw as deserving of their fame through merit, not birthright. He did not ‘do’ glamour per se and his female subjects are handsome rather than ‘fair ladies’. Stories abound about how Karsh managed to get his subjects to co-operate, regardless of the location or how short a session he might have been allocated. As one critic commented, ‘Clearly Karsh used a lot more than lighting on his subjects. His conversational foreplay was as spontaneous as his portraits were staged.’2 Karsh also developed a distinctive style of dark, dramatic, large exhibition prints up to a metre in width or height (as shown in this exhibition) with startling depth and detail. Karsh’s photographs were the equivalent in the portrait field to the monumental landscape photographs of his American contemporary Ansel Adams.
Yousuf Karsh was at the height of his career in the 1960s and 1970s when he was the star of the Canadian pavilion at the World Expo ‘67 in Osaka. Several large exhibitions of his work toured internationally in these years. By the time he died in 2002, Karsh had been awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society and almost every possible form of recognition from his photographic peers across the world. He received national and international honours including an award as Officer of the Order of Canada and a number of honorary degrees from Canadian and American universities.
1 The Canadian Government then sent Karsh to London to photograph the other leaders of wartime Britain and Life magazine commissioned portraits of American military leaders.
2 Sarah Boxer, ‘An Understanding of How to Picture Fame’, The New York Times, 11 August 2002, p. 31 (a review of Karsh works at Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York)