Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)
For more about the early inventions upon which Yousuf Karsh's camera art is based, see: History of Photography (c.1800-1900).
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."
Important Photo: Portrait of Winston Churchill (1941)
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.
1959 Ottowa (National Gallery of Canada)
Karsh's most famous works include photographic portraits of the following famous individuals:
Politicians, Popes, Royalty
Musicians, Writers, Visual Artists
For other renowned len-based artists best-known for their portraits, please see the following articles.
Margaret Cameron (1815-79)
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ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PHOTOGRAPHIC ART