Karsh, Yousuf

Canadian (1908-2002)

Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) is widely regarded as one of the most prolific and successful portrait photographers of all time; when Who’s Who published a list of the 100 most notable people of the 20th century in 2000, Karsh was discovered to have captured 51 of them. Believing that each subject had a secret hidden within that it was the photographer’s job to reveal, Karsh would chat with his subjects as he set up lighting to relax them a bit. He also often photographed hands first to create comfort with the camera; his practice of lighting the hands separately yielded some beautiful shots, most notably a portrait of Helen Keller – her holds pressed together in a prayerful attitude. Karsh’s most famous image was a 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill – the most reproduced photographic portrait in history. Churchill’s scowl and combative stance were the result of Karsh’s removing the prime minister’s trademark cigar from his mouth.

Karsh almost didn’t survive to make these shots. Born in Turkey. He grew up during the Armenian genocide, watching his relative murdered and his sister die of starvation. His family escaped to Syria, and then sent young Yousuf to safety in Canada, where he lived with a photographer uncle who found him apprentices with famous photographers throughout the US. When Karsh returned to Canada at 23, he opened a studio and – with the help of a Canadian official – began photographing visiting dignitaries. And so began the career we celebrate today.