Yousuf Karsh: ‘The’ Portrait Photographer
Photography is an art of capturing images and bringing life into stillness and this is a reason why we say ‘there are sentiments and emotions attached to photographs’. It is often said that people who experience hardships in their life can relate to other people in the most humble manner and become more skilled in identifying and relating with the emotional aspect of human lives. This aspect was made true by an Armenian boy who breathed his first breath on December 23, 1908 in Mardin (Armenia), a city in the eastern Ottoman Empire. This boy became a legendary name in the field of photography and left his mark as one of the masters of 20th century.
Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) held 15,312 sittings and produced over 150,000 negatives during his career and developed creative pictorial biography of men and women who shaped the world in the twentieth century. Name, fame and success did not come easy and early to this internationally renowned photographer.
Martin Luther King
The eldest of three children, Yousuf Karsh and his family experienced the horrors of the Turkish massacres of the Armenian minority in 1915. As a child, his earliest memories comprised of callous and gruesome persecution, illness, imprisonment without any reason, thrown into the well to die and the severe typhus epidemic in which he lost his beloved sister. In his biography, he mentioned “My recollections of those days comprise a strange mixture of blood and beauty, of persecution and peace. I remember finding brief solace in my young cousin relating her ‘Thousand and One Nights’ tales of fantastic ships and voyages and faraway people, and always, solace in the example of my mother, who taught me not to hate, even as the oppression continued.”
When he was 14 years old (1922), Karsh escaped the horrors of the Turkish massacres when his family fled (on feet) to Syria with just their lives (no baggage whatsoever!). In 1924, he was sent to Canada to stay with his uncle George Nakash who was an established photographer based in Quebec. Even though he was not a wealthy man, this man of generous heart gave Yousuf his first camera, a Box Brownie and encouraged him to take photographs.
At seventeen, Karsh spoke little French and no English and aspired to become a doctor. Armed only with good manners, Karsh shifted his goal from being a doctor to being a photographer the moment his uncle handed him his first camera. Seeing Karsh’s interest and passion for photography, his uncle arranged a special training for him with his friend John Garo, a famous portrait photographer in Boston. Karsh spent three years learning about life and exploring the fascinating art of photography before he returned to Canada in 1932 to open his own Ottawa studio.
He received his first international recognition in 1941 when his friend and patron, the Prime Minister Mackenzie King, arranged for him to photograph Winston Churchill. This portrait was published on the cover of Life magazine and the same image was used on stamps for seven different Commonwealth countries. Yousuf regards this experience as one of the most daunting experience as he had precisely four minutes to take the picture of this British politician and former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Since Karsh did not get a chance to have any pre-photo shoot meetings, he attended Churchill’s lecture to get a glimpse about his personality. Karsh describes this whole Winston Churchill experience as “It was certainly not an ideal situation: when he came out, it appeared that nobody had warned him there would be a photo session and he only allowed me to take a single photograph. After I removed the cigar from his mouth, he positively exuded belligerence. That’s what I think the photograph captures – the essence of England in those days, unbeaten and unbowed. Later he paid me a great compliment: he said I had the power to still the roaring lion!”
Karsh regarded ‘meeting the subjects beforehand’ as the most important aspect of photography. He regarded ‘research’ as a vital part of shoot to help a photographer build good rapport and understand the personality of his subjects. This feature enables a photographer to bring out the unique part of the subject’s personality in the captured images.
Another remarkable experience of his life was with American author, political activist and lecturer Helen Keller. Despite her disabilities, Yousuf Karsh was able to establish a strong rapport with Helen Keller. He found her as the most spiritually uplifting woman and with their interactive sessions, Karsh discovered that all the lost powers of her sight and hearing had passed into her hands. Karsh considered this as the most exclusive aspect of her being and considered it equally important to capture in the portrait along with the image of her face.
Helen Keller with Polly Thompson
Yousuf soon became an international accolade and famous men and women from all walks of life considered it as their honor to meet this creative genius. Karsh became the pioneer photographer to capture official portraits of Nikita Khrushchev and members of the Soviet Praesidium. He photographed the British Royal Family, Pope John Paul II and eminent political figures namely President Eisenhower, Fidel Castro, Jawaharlal Nehru, Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King and the renowned President Kennedy. His body of most successful and legendary work includes portraits of men and women of accomplishments belonging to varied fields from the statesmen to artists to writers and musicians such as Ernest Hemingway, George Bernard Shaw, Pablo Picasso, John Steinbeck, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Pablo Casals, Thomas Mann and Bertrand Russell.
George Bernard Shaw
During his learning years under John Garo, Karsh discovered that his extraordinarily talented photography teacher used only natural daylight in his studio and Karsh followed the same till he unveiled the possibilities of tungsten. He was fascinated and impressed by witnessing the use of artificial lighting techniques used at Ottawa Little Theater which was capable of producing different moods at mere change of lights. This phenomenal photographer hence began using tungsten lights that he made at home and instantly came to be regarded as the master of studio lights. Since he worked solely with natural light in Garo’s studio, he was astonished by the versatility which was now available to him. One of his favorite techniques of all was to light the subject’s hands separately which was capable of making the portraits appear more compelling. He often combined the flash with daylight and used electronic lighting when he was away from his studio. Yousuf believed that it is important to find your own style by endless experimentation and this was the sole reason why he never lectured students on lighting.
Karsh was one generous photographer who never hesitated in offering help to aspiring photographers. He was a frequent teacher at photographic workshops in America, a visiting Professor of Photography at Ohio University and appointed Visiting Professor of Fine Arts at Emerson College, Boston, in 1972.
Karsh described his mission to photograph ‘the great in heart, in mind and in spirit, whether they be famous or humble’. His modesty and affectionate nature connected him to every single soul he happened to interact. While he seemed thrilled to meet and greet some of the most prominent individuals of 20th century, he gave an equal amount of consideration, love and respect to his subjects be it a politician or royalty or a harvester or simply a panhandler.
Karsh used a 10 x 8 but often a 5 x 4 view camera. He often used a Rolleiflex in the past and for 35mm work, he used to use a Leica. He made use of Tri-X 400 film for the black-and-white portraits.
Simplicity and Sincerity has always been Karsh’s assets and the same has been exquisitely transferred in all his portraits. He believed that great photographs can be taken using simple cameras in normal daylight. “There is much more to taking a good portrait than mere technique. You must have an understanding of people, of why they do things. You must learn to recognize their essential qualities and know how to capture them. You must be able to get on with your subject. When you are in possession of all these qualities, then and only then you can take a photograph” says the legendary photographer Yousuf Karsh.
It has been estimated that Karsh photographed more than 17,000 people over six decades. He earned a Presidential Citation in 1971 for his photographic contributions to the cause of handicapped children. In 2002, he became one of the 100 most notable people of the 20th century. This honor came with the elated fact that he photographed 52 (of 100) of these notable men and women featured on the list. In 2009, in Ottawa, his life and work were celebrated during Festival Karsh – collaboration between the Canada Museum of Science and Technology and the Portrait Gallery of Canada. His array of photographs now features in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the National Portrait Gallery in London.
This phenomenal photographer retired in 1997 and on July 13, 2002 (93 years old), he breathed his last breath at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, leaving a permanent positive mark in the world of Photography.
You can view some of Yousuf’s great work and can know a lot more about him at Karsh.org
all images © Yousuf Karsh