Yousuf Karsh, 1908-2002, a Canadian photographer of Armenian birth, was one of the world’s best known portraitists of his time. Although he shot practically everyone from Indira Gandhi to Humphrey Bogart, his most famous portrait was that of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, which he took in 1941.
At the age of 14, to escape persecution, Karsh fled to Syria. Two years later, he was sent to live with his uncle George Nakash, a photographer in Quebec. That was where it all began. Whilst Karsh assisted Nakash in his studio, his potential quickly became evident to his uncle and soon after, it was arranged for him to apprentice with a portrait photographer in Boston.
Returning to Canada four years later, Karsh established a studio in Ottawa, the seat of Canadian government. Eventually, due to their sheer physical proximity, the Canadian Prime Minister soon discovered Karsh and began arranging introductions with visiting dignitaries, whom he would convince to sit for portraits.
Karsh’s work subsequently also began to attract the attention of various celebrities. Some of the famous subjects photographed by Karsh include Albert Einstein, Alexander Calder, Andy Warhol, Audrey Hepburn, Clark Gable, Ernest Hemingway, Fidel Castro, Jacqueline Kennedy, Frank Lloyd Wright, George Bernard Shaw, Georgia O’Keeffe, Humphrey Bogart, Indira Gandhi, John F. Kennedy, Laurence Olivier and Picasso. His most famous portrait subject beyond a shadow of a doubt was Winston Churchill.
It was the image of Churchill which plummeted Karsh to international prominence, so much so, that it has been claimed that the photo in question is the most reproduced photo portrait in history. Karsh aptly titled it ‘The Roaring Lion’, the reason for that, as I’m sure you can see, is obvious.
It is said that Karsh’s favourite photograph of Churchill was however, not the above, but the one taken immediately after, when Churchill had lightened up and was even smiling.
In the late 80s Karsh’s complete works were acquired by the National Archives of Canada. This included 370,000 negatives, approximately 17,000 of which were portraits.
Today, Karsh’s work can be found in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, New York’s MoMA and Met, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the National Portrait Gallery of Australia and many others.
His photographic equipment was donated to Ottawa’s Museum of Science and Technology.