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Iconic Photographers - Yousuf Karsh
by Editor Peter Davidson
Edited and published by Yvette Depaepe, the 7th of March 2023


Our third inconic photographer is YOUSUF KARSH.

Karsh was a photographer who portrayed many of the most influential personalities of his day. A photographer who inspired me personally from the moment I saw a large volume of his work in a college library book a long time ago.

Many years later in 1976, I wrote to the great man when hitch hiking in Canada from Toronto to the city of Ottawa where he was based. To my astonishment, he replied and even invited me in at the beautiful and grand hotel of the Château Laurier  where he was based. There, I spent a frankly over-awed hour with him as he showed me around his studio and darkroom. I found him to be a very intense but humble man with a deep and quiet demeanour and great patience. It was a real honour. 

"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."  ~Yousuf Karsh~


                                                                                                                         Karsh, 1938

Yousuf Karsh's images have become iconic representations of some of the most notable figures of the 20th century. His photographs captured the essence of his subjects, whether they were politicians, actors, artists, or scientists, and his careful use of light and shadow created images both striking and timeless.

Born in Armenia in 1908, Karsh grew up in Syria and was sent to Canada at the age of 16 to live with his uncle. He initially planned to study medicine, but after a chance encounter with the photographer John Garo, he decided to pursue photography instead. In the late 1920s, Karsh began working as an apprentice in Garo's studio and later opened his own studio in Ottawa.

                                                                                                                         Churchill 1941 

Karsh's career took off in the 1940s, when he was commissioned to photograph Winston Churchill during his visit to Ottawa. The now-famous photograph of Churchill, which captures the Prime Minister's resolute expression, is considered one of Karsh's greatest achievements. The image catapulted Karsh to fame, and he went on to photograph many other famous figures, including Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Audrey Hepburn.

One of the key elements of Karsh's photography was his use of light and shadow to create dramatic and moody images. He often used a technique called "Rembrandt lighting," where the subject is lit from the side, creating a distinctive triangular shadow under one eye. This technique not only added depth and dimension to his portraits, but it also helped to capture the personality of his subjects.

Another important aspect of Karsh's work was his ability to establish a rapport with his subjects. He believed that a portrait was not just about capturing a likeness, but also about capturing the subject's personality and character. To do this, Karsh would often spend time with his subjects before the shoot, getting to know them and putting them at ease. He believed that this personal connection was essential for capturing a great portrait.

Karsh's photographs are celebrated for their technical brilliance and their ability to capture the spirit of his subjects. His style may seem dated by today's standards, but his portraits remain timeless as they continue to be admired and studied by photographers and art enthusiasts alike. Karsh's legacy as a portrait photographer is significant, and his images are a testament to the power of photography to capture the essence of humanity.


                                                                                                                         Einstein 1948

                                                                                                                  Hemingway, 1957

                                                                                                             Georgia O'Keeffe, 1956

                                                                                                                  Fidel Castro, 1971

                                                                                                                       Picasso, 1954

Miharu PRO
Thank you very much for great article!!
Thank you very much for introducing Yousuf Karsh and his iconic portraits!
It's a pleasure to read about Yousuf Karsh: in a way, he influences my concept of portraiture. The Churchill photo is a good lesson; With a gesture of frustration and astonished for having taken the cigarette, he brought out the strong character of the character. Thank you for this very interesting report on Karsh.
Thank you for an extremely informative and interesting article .
Thank you Shobhit.
Thanks for great Article .
Thank you Hamidreza.
Peter, Thank you for the article, and the story of the memorable hour you spent with him. My favourite of his portraits is Churchill - in part because of the story of how caught that defiant expression by snatching Churchill's cigar from him just before the clicked the shutter. Here's a link to that story . . .
Thank you Steven, and good link that.
Thanks Eduardo.
Lucky you to have met this iconic photographer, Peter. Thanks for this fine article. Cheers, Yvette
Thank you Yvette.