“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.”
A great many personalities from the cultural, scientific and political milieus that shaped the twentieth century have been immortalized on film by internationally renowned photographer Yousuf Karsh. These portraits where shadows play with dramatic light bear witness to a century, but above all to the photographer’s humanistic vision. The human aspect, exchanges between the photographer and his subject, and the revelation of his or her personality via photography are at the core of his practice.
Karsh grew up in Turkish Armenia in a modest environment and in difficult political conditions. He immigrated to Canada in 1924 at the age of sixteen, where he lived with his uncle, a photographer in Sherbrooke, Quebec. He went to school there and worked for his uncle who in return trained him in photography. At his uncle’s recommendation, in 1928 he apprenticed in the Boston studio of photographer John Garo, who taught him to see his subject in terms of light, shadow, and form. These three elements would become key in Karsh’s practice. His entire career he favoured dramatic lighting in which light is the photographer’s favourite device. In 1932 he settled in Ottawa where he opened his photography studio. He became friends with certain Canadian politicians who allowed him to meet and photograph several political personalities of the time.
At age thirty-three he immortalized Sir Winston Churchill on film. This portrait is surely Karsh’s best-known photograph and the one most reproduced in history. The back lighting that shapes the face accentuates the famous politician’s expression while conferring upon him strength, power and intelligence.
Throughout his prolific career, Karsh published more than ten books combining photographs and personal annotations. In 1989, the National Gallery of Canada organized a large retrospective of his work. A two-time recipient of the Order of Canada for lifetime achievement, he is also the only Canadian to appear on the list of one hundred names in the International Who’s Who. His works are found in several collections throughout the world.