Yousuf Karsh: December 23, 1908 – July 13, 2002) was an Armenian–Canadian portrait photographer. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he is “one of the greatest portrait photographers of the twentieth century, [who] achieved a distinct style in his theatrical lighting.”
Yousuf Karsh was born in Mardin, a city in the eastern Ottoman Empire (present Turkey). He grew up during theArmenian Genocide where he wrote, “I saw relatives massacred; my sister died of starvation as we were driven from village to village.” At the age of 16, his parents sent Yousuf to live with his uncle George Nakash, a photographer inSherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. Karsh briefly attended school there and assisted in his uncle’s studio. Nakash saw great potential in his nephew and in 1928 arranged for Karsh to apprentice with portrait photographer John Garo in Boston, Massachusetts, United States. His brother, Malak Karsh, was also a photographer.
Karsh returned to Canada four years later, eager to make his mark. In 1931 he started working with photographer, John Powls, in his studio on the second floor of the Hardy Arcade at 130 Sparks Street in Ottawa, Ontario, close toParliament Hill. When Powls retired in 1933, Karsh took over the studio. Karsh’s first solo exhibition was in 1936 in the Drawing Room of the Château Laurier hotel. He moved his studio into the hotel in 1973, and it remained there until he retired in 1992.
Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King discovered Karsh and arranged introductions with visiting dignitaries for portrait sittings. Karsh’s work attracted the attention of varied celebrities and on 30 December 1941 he photographed Winston Churchill, after Churchill gave a speech to Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa.
The image of Churchill brought Karsh international prominence, and is claimed to be the most reproduced photographic portrait in history. In 1967, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 1990 was promoted to Companion.
Of the 100 most notable people of the century, named by the International Who’s Who , Karsh had photographed 51. Karsh was also the only Canadian to make the list.
In the late 1990s Karsh moved to Boston and on July 13, 2002, aged 93, he died at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital after complications following surgery. He was interred in Notre Dame Cemetery in Ottawa.
Karsh was a master of studio lights. One of Karsh’s distinctive practices was lighting the subject’s hands separately. He photographed many of the great and celebrated personalities of his generation. Throughout most of his career he used the 8×10 bellows Calumet (1997.0319) camera, made circa 1940 in Chicago. Journalist George Perry wrote in the British paper The Sunday Times that “when the famous start thinking of immortality, they call for Karsh of Ottawa.”
Karsh had a gift for capturing the essence of his subject in the instant of his portrait. As Karsh wrote of his own work in Karsh Portfolio in 1967, “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 interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize.”
Karsh said “My chief joy is to photograph the great in heart, in mind, and in spirit, whether they be famous or humble.” His work is in permanent collections of theNational Gallery of Canada, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, Bibliotheque nationale de France, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the National Portrait Gallery of Australia and many others. Library and Archives Canada holds his complete collection, including negatives, prints and documents. His photographic equipment was donated to the Canada Science and Technology Museum in Ottawa.