If you’ve seen some of the most well-known photos of famous and influential people from the 20th century, then chances are that you’ve seen Yousuf Karsh’s work. He was the photographer who captured the most famous photograph of Winston Churchill that became the cover of Life magazine. He also photographed Queen Elizabeth II, Albert Einstein, and John F. Kennedy. However, Yousuf’s photography came about because of luck: both the good and the bad.
Yousuf was born in 1908 in Madrin, a city in the eastern part of the Ottoman Empire — which is Turkey, today. He grew up during the Armenian genocide and watched many of his friends and relatives die while he and his family fled from village to village in search of safety. At the age of 16, Yousuf’s parents sent him to live with his uncle George Nakash in Canada. George owned a photography studio and Yousuf worked there while attending school in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Nakash recognized his nephew’s potential and arranged for Yousuf to work under the direction of John Garo, an American photographer in Boston, Massachusetts. Yousuf went and worked for Garo for four years before returning to Canada with an eye towards making his own mark on the world of photography.
In 1931, Yousuf began working for another photographer named John Powls. Powls owned a studio near Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario. When Powls retired in 1933, Karsh took over the studio. In 1936, Karsh had his first solo exhibition at the Chateau Laurier. In the years that followed, Yousuf Karsh was discovered by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King. King arranged for Karsh to be introduced to visiting dignitaries and to take their portraits. In 1941, when visiting the Canadian House of Commons, Winston Churchill became one of the many to have his portrait done by Karsh.
Karsh was a master of lighting and used studio lights and other lights to leave his distinctive mark on his works. One of his most common traits was to light the hands of his subject separately from their face. He also had a gift for capturing the essence of his subject in the instant of his portrait, stating his belief that “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’s work includes portraits of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, Muhammad Ali, Marian Anderson, W. H. Auden, Joan Baez, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Humphrey Bogart, Alexander Calder, Pablo Casals, Fidel Castro, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Joan Crawford, Ruth Draper, Albert Einstein, Dwight Eisenhower, Princess Elizabeth, Robert Frost, Clark Gable, Indira Gandhi, Grey Owl, Ernest Hemingway, Audrey Hepburn, Pope John Paul II, Chuck Jones, Carl Jung, Helen Keller and Polly Thompson, Grace Kelly, Jacqueline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy, Peter Lorre, Pandit Nehru, Georgia O’Keeffe, Laurence Olivier, General Pershing, Pablo Picasso, Pope Pius XII, Prince Rainier of Monaco, Paul Robeson, the rock band Rush, Albert Schweitzer, George Bernard Shaw, Jean Sibelius, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Andy Warhol, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the aforementioned Winston Churchill.