Widely considered one of the greatest portrait photographers of the 20th Century, Yousuf Karsh was born in Armenia in 1908. But in 1922, following the systematic persecution and massacre of Armenians by the ruling Turks (for more information, see the New York Times’ article on the Armenian Genocide of 1915) his family fled to Aleppo, where they settled.
That might have been the end of the story but for Yousuf’s parents, who had high hopes for their oldest child. Despite having lost everything in Armenia, they scrimped and saved to send their teenage son to live with his Uncle George Nakash (an established photographer and Yousuf’s mother’s brother) in Canada. Arriving on New Year’s Eve, 1925, the young Yousuf could barely speak French, let alone English… but learned fast.
Apprenticed initially to his uncle and, later, the leading Boston portraitist, John. H. Garo; by 1931 Karsh had moved to Ottawa to go it alone. There he was invited to join the Ottawa Little Theatre. It was an invitation that was to prove professionally life-changing:
“The experience of photographing actors on the stage with stage lighting was exhilarating. The unlimited possibilities of artificial light overwhelmed me… Moods could be created, selected, modified, intensified. I was thrilled by this means of expression, this method of interpreting life; a new world was opened to me.”
And personally life-changing, too, for in the troupe’s leading lady, Solange Gauthier, Karsh found his future wife. (The two were married until her death in 1960. )
Meanwhile, the connections he made at the OLT led ultimately to Karsh photographing the Canadian Prime Minister, McKenzie King’s meeting with Franklin D Roosevelt. Not bad for a first stab at photojournalism; it led to more work for the Canadian Government (he had a kind eye that helped promote his subject’s public image) and, in time, King became his friend and patron.
Karsh was known for his black and white images; the lighting carefully arranged (his theatrical grounding and love of the Old Masters remained an influence throughout his career); the final images exquisitely printed. His preferred camera was a large format: 8 by 10 with an interchangeable 4 by 5 back; while lights were invariably tungsten, which he viewed as less disruptive than flash.
His laid-back approach put all at ease but belied an obsessive attention to detail. He would research his subjects thoroughly in order to be able to chat naturally with them; a move designed to relax even the most uptight model. Working with one assistant, he deliberately eschewed an entourage, seeing them as an off-putting distraction. Instead, he’d arrange everything to his complete satisfaction and then move from behind the camera to engage with his model; chatting away until the perfect moment arose, at which point – bam – he’d press the shutter release bulb he’d hidden away in the palm of his hand.
“To make enduring photographs, one must learn to see with one’s mind’s eye,
for the heart and the mind are the true lens of the camera.”
It was an ambush of sorts that resulted in Karsh’s most iconic work: the photograph of Winston Churchill that adorns the UK’s current £5 note. Taken in Ottowa in 1941, McKenzie King had invited Karsh to commemorate the occasion, but nobody had told Churchill. Begrudgingly, Winston agreed to one photograph but his trademark cigar remained resolutely in place. Karsh waited and waited; then, with the words, “Forgive me, Sir” he plucked the cigar from Churchill’s mouth and pressed the shutter release. The resulting shot – now one of the most widely reproduced images in the history of photography – sent Karsh’s reputation soaring into the stratosphere.
From that point on, Karsh photographed everyone who was anyone. And I do mean everyone: Audrey Hepburn; Alfred Einstein; Princess Grace; George Bernard Shaw; Nelson Mandela; Martin Luther King; Fidel Castro; Mother Teresa; Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip; Ernest Hemingway: Pope John Paul II; Elizabeth Taylor; Walt Disney… During his career, Karsh held 15,312 sittings and produced more than 370,000 negatives. Prolific is an understatement. You can see many of his works at London’s National Portrait Gallery – the museum has 90 of his images, including THAT Winston shoot – but for a truer sense of just how astonishing a body of work it is, visit his website: karsh.org
Karsh closed his commercial studio in 1992. A philanthropist from the moment that he was in a position to be so, he spent his life paying forward the kindness that he was shown all those years ago when he first got off that boat in Halifax; mentoring many a young photographer and establishing the Karsh Center at MFA Boston along the way. Together with his second wife Estrellita Nachbar, a medical writer and editor whom he married in 1962, he invested in activities that married the fields of art and medicine, as well as endowing several medical programs. Mrs. Karsh continues this work in their names. A life well lived; Yousuf died in Boston in 2002, leaving behind an unparalleled legacy that extends well beyond art and will transform the lives of others far into the future.
“Character, like a photograph, develops in darkness”