Yousuf Karsh: Finding the Common Humanity behind Famous Faces
It is only a slight exaggeration to say that in the 20th century a public figure’s importance could be measured by whether or not they had been photographed by Yousuf Karsh. Stalwarts of the establishment – Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, Charles de Gaulle, Ronald Reagan – exchanged gazes with a global public through Karsh’s camera lens. So did prominent opponents of the old order such as Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol and Jean Paul Riopelle were among the painters immortalized by this mightily prolific photographer, who was also simpatico with actors, composers and writers. The humanitarian Albert Schweitzer and the war profiteer Alfred Krupp, intellectual pioneers including Albert Einstein and Marshall McLuhan: all of them, and many others, presented themselves before Karsh’s inquisitive camera.
Ironically, this photographic compendium of the powerful and influential (a significant portion of which is housed at the National Gallery of Canada) was produced by a man who began life as a powerless and persecuted outsider. Yousuf Karsh arrived in Canada on New Year’s Eve, 1925, a seventeen-year old refugee from the Armenian genocide. Having travelled by ocean liner from Beirut to Halifax, he brought with him (as refuge seekers have continued to do in the century since then) memories of almost unfathomable horror. In his hometown of Mardin, Armenia, wrote Karsh, “cruelty and torture were everywhere…. Ruthless and hideous persecution and illness form part of my earliest memories: taking food parcels to two beloved uncles torn from their homes, cast into prison for no reason, and later thrown alive into a well to perish; the severe typhus epidemic in which my sister died, despite my mother’s gentle nursing.”
While Karsh’s parents and brother found a safe haven in Aleppo, Syria, young Yousuf was sent to live with his Uncle George Nakash in Sherbrooke, Quebec. In this strange land of snow and ice, Karsh experienced many small pleasures that had been unknown to a boy running for his life: he made friends at school, celebrated birthdays, and later in life enjoyed the company of a spirited black poodle named Clicquot.
It was in Sherbrooke that Karsh discovered photography. While working in the studio of Uncle Nakash, himself a photographer, Karsh began roaming the countryside with a camera, developing the film, and acquired sufficient skill to win a photographic contest that enabled him to send $40 to his parents in Syria. Nakash then arranged his nephew’s apprenticeship in Boston with his friend John H. Garo. Karsh worked in Garo’s studio for as long as there was daylight, and by evening would clandestinely serve alcoholic beverages to members of Boston’s cultural elite, who gathered at Garo’s to exchange views and defy that era’s prohibition laws. Karsh recalled these salons as “my university” where “I set my heart on photographing those men and women who leave their mark on the world.”
Setting off in 1931 for Ottawa with that dream and two suitcases, Karsh opened a studio on Sparks Street with cloth-covered orange crates for furniture and sometimes limited prospects for paying the rent. He became firmly rooted in this city, meeting his first wife, Solange Gauthier (who would die of cancer in 1960) and working with the Ottawa Little Theatre, where he discovered the effects of incorporating theatrical lighting into portrait photography.
He also developed contacts in high places. In 1941, W.L. Mackenzie King, Canada’s notoriously eccentric prime minister, arranged for Karsh to photograph Winston Churchill, triggering a chain of events that would catapult Karsh to international stardom. As the legend goes, Churchill had not been told about the session and became indignant when led into the room where the photographer was set up. Churchill’s handlers placated him with brandy and a cigar, but Karsh inadvertently breathed oxygen onto the smoldering embers of Churchill’s anger. “… without premeditation, but ever so respectfully,” recalled Karsh, “I said ‘Forgive me, sir,’ and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.” The resulting image of a ferocious Churchill became one the most reproduced photographs of all time and established Karsh’s global reputation.
Although world leaders continued to be a staple for Karsh, he had a special affinity – perhaps a residual influence of Garo’s soirées in Boston – with writers, painters and other artists. Karsh was mindful of these subjects’ sense of themselves. His portraits of the painter Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, pay tribute to the artist’s deep connection with the New Mexico environment that fed her creative impulses and sustained her simple existence.
When Karsh photographed Ernest Hemingway, whom he described as “a man of particular gentleness, the shyest man I have ever photographed,” he left the writer’s veneer of proud stoicism intact. Hemingway’s fixed, resolute gaze hides the interior experience of “a man cruelly battered by life”, wracked by pain from a recent plane crash and from the cumulative impacts of World War I injuries and decades of heavy drinking. Hints that something is amiss are subtle: Hemmingway wears a heavy sweater, despite the tropical heat of his Cuban home.
Ottawa remained home base for Karsh until 1992, when he closed his studio at the Château Laurier hotel. Although the photographer moved to Boston with his second wife, Estrellita, in 1997, the City of Ottawa continues to present the Karsh Award to a promising young photographer once every two years. Karsh died in Boston in 2002.
Karsh’s critics, noted David Travis, founder of the photography department at the Art Institute of Chicago, sometimes portrayed him as a flatterer in awe of his celebrity subjects. In contrast, Travis believes that Karsh is better understood as someone motivated by his mother’s philosophy, imparted during the Armenian genocide, that “all people share a common humanity.” His portraits didn’t transform his subjects into monuments, but revealed them as human, just like everyone else.
In fact, among Karsh’s most captivating work are images of unknown Canadians. In the 1950s, Maclean’s magazine sent Karsh on a cross-country assignment. He returned with photographs of ordinary people facing everyday life with great dignity: people at work in the factories and the fields; a woman wandering in St. John, New Brunswick; an old Indigenous man, Daniel Makokis, bound for an Edmonton hospital with “all of his worldly belongings wrapped in a knapsack, his name on a label and a worn white cane.” Though he would turn exclusively to portraits of the famous after this series, these images of ordinary people confirm that for Karsh, the refugee, the dignity of a person did not depend upon their station or circumstances.
For a full listing of Karsh's work in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, consult the Search the Collection section. For additional images by Karsh, see his Archive at karsh.org. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.