Journalist George Perry once wrote in the British paper The Sunday Times, “…when the famous start thinking of immortality, they call for Karsh of Ottawa.” Samira Sukhija traces the journey of legendary portraitist, Yousuf Karsh, in his search for greatness.
This story was originally published in October 2008.
Anyone who stood in front of Yousuf Karsh’s camera knew that they were going to be immortalised. All of them freely posed for him, because people knew that a master was photographing them. Karsh photographed thousands of distinguished men and women from varied fields, during a career that spanned more than six decades. The portraits he made are admired for their styling and their place in history; he described the sum of all his portraits as a panorama of the ‘great world theatre of the twentieth century’.
“ The past has no claims on greatness, for arresting personalities are always among us. I know only that my quest continues.”
After his family escaped to Syria to avoid persecution during the Armenian genocide, Karsh was sent to live with his uncle George Nakash, a photographer based in Canada. He let go of his original desire to be a physician because of financial constraints. Instead, he roamed the fields and woods with a small camera gifted to him by his uncle. Seeing his potential, Nakash sent Karsh to John H Garo, a portraitist based in Boston. It was here that Karsh’s photographic career really took shape. He learnt different techniques and processes present at the time, and he was also exposed to the concept of great lighting, design and composition. Garo’s studio provided Karsh an opportunity to mingle with international artists and political celebrities. He then decided to photograph the influential people of that era. He returned to Canada four years later in 1932, and established a studio in Ottawa. Here, he was introduced to the use of incandescent lighting through his interaction with the Ottawa Little Theatre. It became a defining influence on his style, as he saw that with this lighting moods could be created, selected, modified, and intensified.
“ The search for greatness of spirit has compelled me to work harder… It has kept me young in heart, adventurous, forever seeking…”
Turning Point of His Career
For Karsh, destiny lent a favourable hand in 1941, during the World War II, when he photographed Winston Churchill after he gave a speech to the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa. The story goes that Churchill was not aware of the photo session and he was in no mood for portraiture. Two minutes were all that he would allow. He had marched into the room scowling and his expression suited Karsh perfectly. But the cigar stuck between his teeth seemed incompatible with the solemn mood of the day. Karsh then asked him to remove the cigar and when he refused, Karsh instinctively walked up to the great man and removed the cigar. The infamous Churchilian scowl deepened, and the head thrusted forward belligerently.
The image captured Churchill as well as the Britain of the time perfectly—defiant and unconquerable. It went on to become the most reproduced photographic portrait in history. It was also among the first to bear the now-familiar ‘Karsh of Ottawa’ copyright, which has since appeared in publications and on commemorative stamps all over the world. However, Karsh’s favourite photograph was the one taken immediately after this one where Churchill’s mood had lightened considerably. While the pose was the same, Churchill smiled this time.
After the shoot, Churchill had said to him “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed”. In an interview much later, Karsh expressed, “It’s a story that has been dramatised by the press a great deal… I photographed Churchill three times, twice after that occasion. It was a spontaneous act on my part (removing the cigar). It was similar to picking a piece of thread off your shirt. It was done with respect and appreciation. But he responded. His expression, although not planned on my part, fit the need of the hour.”
‘In Search of Greatness’
Karsh’s subjects were some of the greatest celebrities of his generation—people who shaped the idea of the Western World. He said that he likes to photograph “the great in spirit, whether they be famous or humble”, and that his goal was to portray them “both as they appeared to me and as they impressed themselves on their generation.” Karsh openly admitted that he was a hero worshipper. Each new photograph became an addition to Karsh’s ‘Gallery of the Great’. At first, it was an honour for the amateur Karsh to walk up to or invite people to photograph them. After that, it became a privilege for future subjects to be accepted into Karsh’s gallery. Eventually, Karsh chose and brought to the world the ‘Famous 500’ from his wealth of portraits.
“ The mind and soul of the personality before my camera that interests me most. The greater the mind and soul, the greater my interest.”
Style of Portraiture
“Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting moment interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize.” Karsh often said that the most important lesson he learned early in his career was that the ‘art’ of photography was a combination of ‘observation’ and ‘intuition’. He explains in one of his books, “To make a significant photo of someone, you have to know a great deal about them —their accomplishments, mission in life or contribution to their fellow man. All this information and observation plays an important part so that the photographer can make a sensitive image.” Karsh preferred to photograph his subjects in their own environment. He used a language of imagery—hand gestures, facial movements, body language, and direction of gaze—to bring out their personality. Photographs were shot against simple backgrounds, frequently black—and no props that could distract were used.
A Full Circle
In 1992, Karsh retired from photography and closed his studio. After that, he did not accept commercial assignments. But, in the last thirty years, photography graduates came to work with him, much like the apprenticeship he had enjoyed with Garo. Through this program, Jerry Fielder, a photographer interested primarily in the curatorial aspects of photography, put Karsh’s archives in order. Before his death, all of Karsh’s 355,000 negatives were acquired by Canada’s National Archives in Ottawa. With fame came a set of vocal critics who criticised the photographer for the sameness of his photo portraits and the extraordinarily solemn feel to them. But the Karsh of Ottawa is still alive in the famous portraits he created and the artistic legacy he left behind.