One of the greatest portrait photographers of all time, Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) captured not only the images of hundreds of the 20th century's most memorable leaders and celebrities but also the faces of thousands of ordinary men and women whose lives formed the backbone of Canadian society. Karsh, who died at the age of 93 in July 2002, left a priceless legacy to Canada—his adopted homeland for nearly eight decades. Before his death, Karsh sold or donated all 355,000 of his negatives to Canada's National Archives in Ottawa. His photos will form the core collection of the Portrait Gallery of Canada, which was scheduled to open in 2005.
Of Karsh's accessibility to photo subjects from all walks of life, Lily Koltun, acting director of the Portrait Gallery told the Toronto Star, "He gave the same attention to anyone who called his studio, so the work we have from him is a wonderful cross-section of Canadian society, not just of famous people but fishermen, a sailmaker, a farmer in his field—if you look deeply in his collection, you can discover aspects to him that are quite unexpected." Equally lavish in her praise was Maia Sutnik, curator of photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario, who told the Toronto Star, "He brought a huge sense of the personality into his pictures. He made iconic portraits of great men and women, and he brought international acclaim to Canada." Karsh was not without his detractors, however. Some of his more vocal critics faulted the photographer for the sameness of his photo portraits, almost all of which were shot in black and white and have an extraordinarily solemn feel to them. His defenders—and they are legion—retort that this was simply Karsh's style. In its assessment of Karsh's legacy, the Economist likened the criticism of his work to "complaining that Rembrandt's paintings did not make you laugh."
Karsh was born on December 23, 1908, in the Armenian enclave of Mardin, Turkey. During the years of World War I (1914-1918), the Armenians of Turkey endured widespread persecution and privation at the hands of the Turkish government. In 1924, at the age of 16, Karsh left his native Turkey for Canada to live with his uncle, A.G. Nakash, who operated a photo studio in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Under his uncle's direction, the young Karsh learned the basics of photography. However, recognizing that Karsh needed more expert guidance to refine his skills, his uncle in 1928 sent him to Boston to apprentice under fellow Armenian John H. Garo, a well-known portrait photographer of the day. For the next couple of years, Karsh later recalled, as written in the Independent, that he learned about "lighting, design, and composition … and began to appreciate the greater dimensions of photography." Under Garo's tutelage, Karsh was exposed to some of Boston's most celebrated men and women who regularly convened at Garo's informal afternoon salons. "Even as a young man," he remembered, "I was aware that these glorious afternoons and evenings in Garo's salon were my university. There I set my heart on photographing those men and women who leave their mark on the world."
After a three-year apprenticeship under Garo, Karsh in 1931 returned to Canada. In the nation's capital of Ottawa, he opened a modest portrait studio, hoping that its location would offer him an opportunity "to photograph its leading figures and many international visitors," Karsh was quoted as saying in the Independent. So meager was Karsh's budget for the launch of his own studio that most of the furniture consisted of orange crates, "covered—tastefully, I thought—with monk's cloth, and if I occasionally found myself borrowing back my secretary's salary of $17 a week to pay the rent, I was still convinced, with the resilience of youth, that I had made the right choice." In his spare time, Karsh became involved with a local theater group, where he learned more about lighting and the use of artificial light in photography. It was at the theater group that the photographer first met actress Solange Gauthier, whom he married on April 27, 1939.
Only a few years after setting up shop in Ottawa, Karsh had firmly established himself in Canadian political circles. In 1935 he was named official portrait photographer of the Canadian government, in which capacity he was frequently called upon to photograph Canadian leaders and visiting statesmen. Karsh routinely researched the lives and accomplishments of his well-known subjects. In an account of his preparations for a photo shoot, Karsh wrote, as quoted in the Independent, "Before I begin, I will have studied my subject to the best of my ability, and within broad limits know what I am hoping to find, and what I hope to be able to interpret successfully. The qualities that have attracted me to the subject are those that will satisfy me if I can portray them in the photograph, and that will most probably satisfy views of the picture as well. I am fascinated by the challenge of portraying greatness … with my camera."
Although he had already won wide acceptance in the Canadian capital, Karsh first captured international attention with his December 1941 portrait of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. During a brief visit to Ottawa, Churchill reluctantly agreed to sit for Karsh, warning the photographer that he would give him two minutes and not a second more to take his picture. With that, Churchill lit up one of his trademark cigars. Seconds later, Karsh snatched the cigar from Churchill's lips and snapped the picture. The resulting photo, which shows a somewhat petulant Churchill scowling into the camera and was sold to Life magazine for only $100, eventually became the most widely reproduced portrait in the history of photography. The Churchill portrait firmly established Karsh's reputation as a world-class portrait photographer. Not long thereafter, the Canadian government asked Karsh to travel to England to shoot a series of photographs of British military leaders. Life magazine subsequently commissioned the photographer to do a similar series of American wartime leaders. In 1946, the year after the end of World War II, Karsh published his first book, Faces of Destiny, a collection of portraits of the men and women who spearheaded the Allied victories in Europe and the Pacific. That same year Karsh became a naturalized Canadian citizen.
The widely circulated Churchill portrait brought a major change in Karsh's life. No longer did he have to seek out subjects. They came looking for him, seeking immortality through his lens. To be "Karshed" was a true sign that a celebrity had arrived. Although he offered his services to those from all walks of life, there was no denying that Karsh was fascinated by those he described as "people of consequence," a group that included politicians, royalty, writers, scientists, and actors, among others. As the photographer himself observed and noted in the Economist, "It's the minority that make the world go around." Every Canadian prime minister from Mackenzie King to Jean Chretien sat for Karsh, as did every American president from Herbert Hoover to Bill Clinton. Although probably no one other than Karsh knows for sure, it has been estimated that he photographed 17,000 people over six decades.
During the early 1950s Karsh worked occasionally as an industrial photographer, doing work for companies such as Ford of Canada Ltd. and Atlas Steel Ltd., but the bulk of his life's work was as a portraitist. His most famous subjects included the British royal family; a young Elizabeth Taylor; Pope Pius XII; Albert Einstein; authors Norman Mailer, George Bernard Shaw, Andre Malraux, and H.G. Wells; British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; and a bevy of American film stars, including Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, and Gregory Peck. In 1959, Karsh became the first photographer to have a one-man exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada.
Karsh gained world recognition for his portrait style, which was formal and shot almost exclusively in black and white. The most notable aspect of the photographer's unique style was his use of light to model his subject's faces in almost sculptural fashion. Karsh's portraits are shot against simple backgrounds—frequently black—and use no props or decorations that might attract attention away from the central figure of the portrait. Although some of his detractors complain that Karsh's portraits fail to capture the essence of his subjects, his supporters point out that Karsh's primary goal was the visual idealization of the legend and public image of those he photographed.
In 1961 Karsh's wife, Solange, died of cancer. A year later, on August 28, 1962, the photographer married Estrellita Maria Nachbar. He also became involved in academics, serving as visiting professor of photography at Ohio University in Athens from 1967 to 1969. In 1972 Karsh, whose "Karsh of Ontario" label was now recognized as the signature of one of the world's most famous portrait studios, moved his operation into a suite at Ottawa's fashionable Chateau Laurier Hotel. He also signed on with Boston's Emerson College as visiting professor of fine arts, a position he held until 1974.
Part of Karsh's success as a portraitist may be attributable to the deep respect in which he was held by most of his subjects. According to the Edmonton Sun, Karsh's brother Malak, who died in 2000, said his brother's subjects freely gave of themselves "with love and respect." He said, "People knew they had a master with them and they appreciated that opportunity." For his part, Karsh preferred to refer to his photo sessions as "visits," during which he was unfailingly polite and curious, seeking to draw out his subjects' views on their own lifes' experiences as well as life in general.
Karsh maintained his studio in the Chateau Laurier Hotel until 1992, when he retired to Boston with wife Estrellita. Although he was no longer active in photography, Karsh's work continued to excite great interest worldwide. In the years following his retirement, major retrospective exhibitions of Karsh's work were held at Montreal's Museum of Fine Arts; London's National Portrait Gallery; Washington's Corcoran Gallery; the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina; the Museum of Photography, Film, and TV in Bradford, England; Boston's Museum of Fine Arts; the Detroit Institute of Art; the National Portrait Gallery of Australia; and the Tower Gallery in Yokahama, Japan. His work has also been reproduced in nearly a score of books of photography, including Faces of Destiny (1946), Portraits of Greatness (1959), This Is Rome (1959), The Warren Court (1965), Karsh Portfolio (1967), This Is the Holy Land (1970), Faces of Our Time (1971), Karsh Portraits (1976), and Karsh Canadians (1978).
Karsh died in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 13, 2002, from complications following surgery for diverticulitis. Perhaps Karsh himself offered the best overview of his goals as a portraitist in his 1962 autobiography, In Search of Greatness: Reflections of Yousuf Karsh. Echoed in Contemporary Photographers Karsh wrote: "I believe that it is the artist's job to accomplish at least two things—to stir the emotions of the viewer and to lay bare the soul of his subject. When my own emotions have been stirred, I hope I can succeed in stirring those of others. But it is the mind and soul of the personality before my camera that interests me most, and the greater the mind and soul, the greater my interest."
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Economist (US), July 20, 2002.
Edmonton Sun, July 14, 2002.
Independent (UK), July 15, 2002.
Toronto Star, July 15, 2002.