Episode #4 of the course Most famous photographers of all time
Armenian-born Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh was a 20th-century portrait photographer who captured images of over 15,000 people. From international dignitaries and political leaders to private citizens seeking commissioned memories, Karsh’s skill became known as the standard for infusing an image with the essence of a person. It was said that when famous people began to think of immortality, they called for “Karsh of Ottawa,” as he was sometimes called.
Yousuf Karsh was raised in the former Ottoman Empire during the tragic mass genocides committed against Armenian people. He witnessed large-scale suffering and atrocities, and this experience of seeing the worst that the world had to offer gave him a great appreciation for the better—and especially the best—things in life. Young Karsh was sent to live with his uncle in Canada, from whom he learned his photography skills. After studying under the famous Boston portrait photographer John H. Garo, Karsh began practicing in his own studio in Ottawa in 1933. Throughout the 1930s, he studied dramatic lighting at the Ottawa Drama League, which would influence the rest of his career.
The image that propelled Karsh into his own celebrity was the portrait photograph he took of Winston Churchill during the prime minister’s Canadian visit in 1941. Karsh sat Churchill for the photo and removed the cigar from his mouth at the last second, angering the PM. The irritation in Churchill’s face is exactly the “dogged determination” that Karsh had been attempting to capture. In his brilliant success, the photo continues to be the most reproduced portrait photograph in history.
He shot to international acclaim after that portrait and enjoyed a busy and successful career. Mainly, Karsh operated out of his Ottawa studio, although he traveled frequently. Karsh spent a career of nearly 60 years teaching photography and publishing books. He held exhibits around the world as one of the first portrait photographers to do so.
All Karsh’s portraits are highly posed. He preferred to shoot people in their own surroundings to make them more at ease in front of the camera and capture more of their true selves in the image. Karsh began every portrait session with an interview, studying his subjects for tiny movements that revealed personality characteristics. He attempted to relay these ineffables through the photograph. Because he shot in black and white, he considered the importance of lighting and contrast and often lit his subjects’ hands separately from their faces.
Photographing some of the most famous faces of the century, Karsh attempted to capture something special, unique, and true about every subject, from the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Queen Elizabeth II, and Ernest Hemingway to Albert Einstein. Over 20 of Karsh’s images have served as the covers of issues of Life magazine, and many have become the iconic image associated with their subjects.
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