Born Dec 23rd, 1908
Died July 13th, 2002
Yousuf Karsh was born in modern day Turkey, during the Armenian genocide, he wrote about watching his sister die of starvation and several relatives killed. Including two uncles who were tossed into a well to die. When he was 16 he was sent to live with an uncle, George Nakash, in Quebec Canada. He was a photographer by profession and ultimately arranged for an apprenticeship with John Garo, in Boston Massachusetts.
Returning to Canada four years later he worked with a photographer named John Powls whose studio was near Parliament and ultimately taking over the studio when Powls retired. He was invited to join the Ottawa Little Theatre. Ultimately it was here that he learned the dramatic lighting that be became known for. But perhaps more importantly it was here that he was giving an opportunity to photograph the Lord Duncannon the Governor General and his wife. I could only imagine that Karsh was nervous, but in his words
“In my eagerness and delight I became too excited. My mistakes in English frustrated me; I did not even focus the camera correctly; not surprisingly, this first photographic attempt was disastrous. But the Bessborough,s proved most understanding of a nervous young photographer’s feelings and consented to sit for me again; this time my portraits were a great success and appeared in the Illustrated London News, and the Tatler, the Sketch, and many newspapers across Canada.”
It might very well be that this sent him on a road that would enable him to sit and photograph portraits of statesmen, artists, musicians, authors, scientists, and men and women of accomplishment for the rest of his career. Probably his most notable portrait is of Winston Churchill. As the story goes, Karsh was waiting for Churchill to finish speaking to the Canadian Parliament. Karsh had set up the night before, to be ready for Churchill, who was not informed about being photographed after the speech. He apparently complained but remained and lite a cigar, for which was ever present. Karsh recounts this experience as such,
“Churchill’s cigar was ever present. I held out an ashtray, but he would not dispose of it. I went back to my camera and made sure that everything was all right technically. I waited; he continued to chomp vigorously at his cigar. I waited. Then I stepped toward him and, without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, “Forgive me, sir,” and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”
It was Churchills defiant expression and disdain for what just happened that Karsh captured, that seemed to resemble what Britain was feeling at the time. Churchill would later tell Karsh
“You can even make a lion stand still to be photographed”
Thus, he named the picture, The Roaring Lion.
Karsh’s first show was held in 1936 in the hotel Chateau Laurier. He moved his studio there in 1973 and remained there for the rest of his career, which he retired from in 1992.
Time Magazine and The Metropolitan Museum of Art has proclaimed him one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century. In truth, I would venture to say in the history of photography. I would think he would make any list of top 100 photographers of all time.
Time Magazine collection of Karsh’s color pictures
The Metropolitian Museum of Art’s collection
Smithsonian’s recounting of the Churchill story