Fine Art Photography Series
Yousuf Karsh

Armenian-Canadian Portrait Photographer.

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Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)


Yousuf Karsh's Photography
Selected Exhibitions
Famous Portraits by Yousuf Karsh

For more about the early inventions upon which Yousuf Karsh's camera art is based, see: History of Photography (c.1800-1900).

For a short summary of
photographic terminology,
please see:

Art Photography Glossary.

For the 80 best camera
artists and inventors, see:
Photographers: 19th-Century.

Yousuf Karsh's Photography

One of the best portrait artists of the second half of the 20th century, the Armenian-Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh ranks among the greatest photographers of North America. Schooled in the Hollywood glamour tradition and specializing in classical portraiture, Karsh photographed almost everyone of international importance, including 51 of the 100 most notable people of the century, as compiled by the International Who's Who. A master of all aspects of fine art photography, he was noted in particular for his effective use of lighting - his trademark was to light the subject's hands separately - and is best-known for his portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, taken in 1941. But Karsh's distinctive contribution to portrait art lay in his uncanny ability to reveal the inner-self of his subjects. As he once wrote: "Within every person a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my job to reveal it if I can. The revelation may come in a fraction of a second in the form of an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye. In that fleeting moment the photographer must act or lose his prize." Elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, Karsh became such a celebrity that - as journalist George Perry wrote: "when the rich and famous start thinking of immortality, they call for Karsh of Ottawa."

For a brief guide to the aesthetics and artistic nature of lens-based art, please see: Is Photography Art?


Important Photo: Portrait of Winston Churchill (1941)
Photographed by Yousuf Karsh. Churchill looks extra defiant because Karsh has just confiscated his cigar

For another photographer who was noted for his portraits of Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemmingway, see: Larry Burrows (1926-71).


Born Hovsep Karshian in Mardin, a Turkish city of the eastern Ottoman Empire, Karsh grows up during the period of the Armenian Genocide. In 1924, at the age of 16, his parents send him to his uncle George Nakash, a photographer who lives in Quebec, Canada. Recognizing Karsh's natural gift for camera work, Nakash sends him to Boston in 1928 as an apprentice with the portrait photographer John H. Garo. Returning to Canada in 1931, Karsh opens a portrait studio in Ottawa, close to the Canadian Parliament building, where he quickly acquires the reputation as an outstanding portrait photographer, whose clients include high-achievers in politics, the arts and the world of showbiz.

The Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King provides Karsh with his big break by introducing him to visiting dignitaries for portrait sittings, and on 30 December 1941 Karsh photographs the British PM Winston Churchill, after the latter's speech to the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa. His photo of a scowling, defiant Churchill - later published as a cover for Life magazine, and reputed to be the most reproduced photographic portrait in history - brings Karsh instant international celebrity. It is followed by numerous portraits of international celebrities of the day, including: Humphrey Bogart, Fidel Castro, Albert Einstein, Clark Gable, Ernest Hemingway, John F. Kennedy, Pablo Picasso, and George Bernard Shaw. Indeed, over the next five decades, using his distinctive 1940 Calumet camera, he photographs most of the famous personalities of his generation. In addition he publishes 15 collections of his photographs, with brief accounts of the sittings, during which he would chat with his subjects to relax them while he composed their portrait.

A Professor at Ohio University (1967-69) and at Emerson College in Boston (1972-74), he receives numerous honours and awards, including the Canada Council Medal (1965), Officer of the Order of Canada (1967), Medal of Service of the Order of Canada (1968), Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographie Society (1970), Gold Medal of the National Association of Photographic Art (1974), and Companion of the Order of Canada (1990).

In the late 1990s Karsh settles in Boston where he dies after complications following surgery, at the age of 93.

Photographs by Karsh are in the permanent collections of several of the world's best art museums, notably the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, the Parisian Bibliotheque nationale de France, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the National Portrait Gallery of Australia and many others.

Selected Exhibitions

1959 Ottowa (National Gallery of Canada)
1967 Montreal (Expo 67)
1968 Montreal (Museum of Fine Arts)
1973 Santa Barbara CA (Museum of Art)
1981 Bonn (Rheinisches Landesmuseum)
1989 Ottowa (National Gallery of Canada)
2000 Berlin (group show at the Kronprinzenpalais)
2003 Canberra (National Gallery of Australia)
2004 New York (Queen's Museum of Art)
2004 London (Tom Blau Gallery)
2006 Carmel CA (Weston Gallery)
2006 Nice (Theatre de la Photographie et de l'Image)
2006 Paris (Canadian Cultural Centre)
2008 Boston (Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
2009 Chicago (Art Institute of Chicago)

Exhibitions of his portraiture are regularly held in the best galleries of contemporary art across Europe and North America.

Famous Portraits by Karsh

Karsh's most famous works include photographic portraits of the following famous individuals:

Politicians, Popes, Royalty
Pandit Nehru, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Fidel Castro, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Sir Winston Churchill, Dwight Eisenhower, Indira Gandhi, Pierre Trudeau, Jacqueline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Nikita Khrushchev, Martin Luther King, Pope Pius XII, Pope John XXIII, Pope John Paul II, Queen Elizabeth II.

Musicians, Writers, Visual Artists
George Bernard Shaw, Jean Sibelius, W. H. Auden, Joan Baez, Robert Frost, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernest Hemingway, Alexander Calder, Pablo Casals, Georgia O'Keeffe, Walt Disney, Andy Warhol, Dizzy Gillespie, Pablo Picasso.

Other Celebrities
Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, Muhammad Ali, Mother Teresa, The Marx Brothers, Humphrey Bogart, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, Peter Lorre, Laurence Olivier, Sophia Loren.

Portrait Photographers

For other renowned len-based artists best-known for their portraits, please see the following articles.

Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-79)
Edward Steichen (1879-1973)
Man Ray (1890-1976)
Dorothea Lange (1895-1965)
Walker Evans (1903-75)
Cecil Beaton (1904-1980)
Norman Parkinson (1913-90)
Hans Namuth (1915-90)
Diane Arbus (1923-1971)
Richard Avedon (1923-2004)
David Bailey (b.1938)
Annie Leibovitz (b.1949)
Steve McCurry (born 1950)
Cindy Sherman (b.1954)

• For more about portrait photography, see: Homepage.

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