December 17, 2018
Ottawa’s Celebrity Portrait Photographer
Last month I visited Ottawa for two very important reasons but, to my surprise, I found a third reason worth writing about; a discovery in downtown Ottawa. I found a Yousuf Karsh commemoration that nobody knows about, though I hope to change that. This post is dedicated to the master portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh.
The commemoration statue of Yousuf Karsh can be found between the Government of Canada Parliament building and the Chateau Laurier (Fairmont Hotel), where Karsh lived and photographed countless politicians, celebrities, and stars from around the globe.
Yousuf Karsh was a master at capturing portraits. Why? While his technical skills were superb and his black and white photography is outstanding, it was his ability to capture the spirit of his subject that set him apart. Karsh’s understanding of human nature and capturing the humanity of his subjects that have made him renown as the greatest portrait photographer.
The Spirit of a Portrait
Portraits by Yousuf Karsh
When I was a boy my father had a few books adorning our living room space, and I remember looking at one book of people’s faces and admiring Karsh’s photography, in particular, while dreaming of one day becoming like him.
Somehow, not yet knowing how to articulate it, I knew that there was something special about Karsh’s portraits of people. His images reached out while images by other’s were lifeless. Yousuf Karsh was a master at capturing the essence of his subjects.
“You look for their quality, their inward power, their thoughts, their intention of goodwill towards others,” said Yousuf Karsh about his methodology towards photographing people, “I go with an open mind.” I smile as I consider this quote from him; it makes my heart beat when I listen again to his live interview. Wishing I could have witnessed the great photographer capture portraits of people.
Unfortunately portrait photography is mostly explained by visual artists rather than photographers of the craft like Karsh. The technical explanation of good portrait photography teaches visual values and techniques while excluding the true art of a portrait: the ability to capture the essence of a human being.
Bloggers today replicate the old techinical learning while adding new technology-based gimmicks to their articles. “The eye of the photographer optimized by the latest and largest sensor with additional gigabytes the bloggers proclaim,” the bloggers proclaim. Rubbish.
I judge the final product of a headshot not by the visual content but by the intimacy of the emotional experience. Yousuf Karsh captured the spirit of his subjects. How? Let’s analyze three of his portraits to theorize on his methodologies. I warn you that the following analysis will shed a completely different interpretation than what others have written before regarding Karsh and his work. I hope you agree with my opinions based on a 30 year career photographing humans and being a lifelong Karsh fan.
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy photographed by Yousuf Karsh, prints available at karsh.org
Engraved stoned photographed in Ottawa by Carlos Taylhardat
Albert Einstein photographed by Yousuf Karsh, prints available at karsh.org
Portraits by Yousuf Karsh
Arguably this is Yousuf Karsh’s most famous portrait. It was by an outstanding coincidence that Yousuf Karsh and Winston Churchill met at this pivotal moment in history, with the final product becoming a portrait to inspire Briton and its allies.
“In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken,” proclaimed Winston Churchill on December 30th, 1941, in Canada’s House of Commons just hours prior to this portrait session. He was in the midst of a war, a hopeless war, which to win he needed to rally support from his own caucus and other world leaders. All this while the English were facing the prospect of being bombed, displaced and killed. Few understood what he was experiencing. But Yousef Karsh one of the few who did.
Karsh escaped the Armenian Genocide, where his family was murdered, and arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia on December 31st, 1923 by ship from Beirut, Lebanon. The Ottoman government systematically killed 1.5 million Armenians from 1914 to 1923. Thus, Karsh could wholly understand Winston Churchill’s quote “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”.
“Victory was yet not altogether in our grasps,” Karsh reflects on Churchill’s heavy moment in 1941. As such, Karsh thought Churchill’s cigar set the wrong tone in a time of such despair. But Churchill refused to take it out of his mouth.
“It was totally spontaneous,” said Karsh of his impulse to pluck the cigar out of the mouth of the man who was taking on Hitler. “I said ‘Forgive me, Sir,’ He looked so belligerent and then [Churchill] said ‘you can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.'” That resulting portrait captured a moment when Churchill found himself shockingly defied by this Canadian photographer, and how Churchill digests such unexpected defiance without the opportunity to put on his political mask.
My belief is that every fine portrait captures a mix between the essence of the photographer and the spirit of their subject. The Churchill portrait was made possible by Karsh’s Emotional Intelligence, his grim past, and how that interplayed with Churchill’s then present reality.
Churchill respected Karsh because in a sub-conscious way, too. Otherwise, that “lion” might have eaten him. They understood something about each other at that moment, leaving the world with a portrait that would inspire at a crucial moment in our world’s history.
Sir Winston Churchill to appear on next Bank of England banknote
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”, Winston Churchill.
Churchill In Ottawa (1941)
“Without any thought except the total and final escapation of the Hitler Tyranny, of the Japanese Frenzy and the Mussolini Flop!”
Portraits by Yousuf Karsh
This portrait makes me smile, how about you? The survivor of genocide, Yousuf Karsh met another survivor who was politically imprisoned for 27 years only to endure with enough hope and energy to become a great president, a world leader and an advocate for peace.
I would have loved to have heard Yousuf Karsh and Mandela conversing during this session which would later become the cover of Mandela’s biography. You don’t need to know anything about Mandela to be inspired by those strong, hopeful eyes.
And in the end, that’s the missing secret of great portrait photography. All the technical know-how will help you create handsome pictures. But for something transcending and truly artful, a photographer needs to capture more than a striking pose or practiced grin.
Yousuf Karsh’s work taught me that and I have been practicing at it ever since. Seeing his memorial in Ottawa caught me off-guard (much like Churchill was caught off-guard so many years before) and reminded me of what’s so fulfilling about this trade of headshots. I hope you get the chance to visit it if you’re in Ottawa and I hope you begin looking at portraits not just for the technical expertise, but for the layers of humanity that can be revealed from one sublimely captured moment of reflection.
“Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer, it is my task to reveal it, if I can.” Yousuf Karsh.
You may never have heard of Yousuf Karsh, but as one of the 20th century’s greatest portrait photographers, you can bet that the world’s most famous and influential people sure did. To be “Karshed”, was to be immortalized, and from the 1940’s to the 1990’s, a portrait shot by Karsh was something to be treasured, a sure sign that one had joined the elite.
Karsh was an Armenian, born in Turkey in 1908. He emigrated to Canada and eventually settled in Ottawa, where he began a career in portrait photography unmatched by anyone. He saw his work as a “Document of History” and sought out famous people to shoot, rightly thinking that this would be a good way to get his work well-known.
His big break came when he was commissioned to shoot Winston Churchill, who was giving a speech at the Canadian Parliament in 1941. The British Prime Minister was in no mood to sit still for a portrait and told the then-unknown photographer that he would only have two minutes to get his shot. Karsh brashly took Churchill’s ever-present cigar away from him during the shoot. Churchill scowled at Karsh and that was the moment Karsh took his picture. The portrait became a symbol of the determined, strong and unwavering spirit that would carry England and the Allies through the darkest days of World War Two. It was to become the most reproduced photographic portrait in history.
Karsh developed his own signature style. He would talk with his subject for a little while, putting them at ease, in the hopes that a relaxed person would allow a glimpse into their real selves. While conversing, he would place them into a pose he thought would be interesting and effective. Karsh would light a person’s hands separately, giving them a life of their own. With his subject lit and ready, Karsh waited until that fraction of a second when their defences were down when a glimpse of their true, unguarded nature was revealed. That’s when Karsh would take his shot. His innovative methods would result in his shooting 50 out of Time Magazine’s top 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Politicians, sports heroes, actors, artists, all would find themselves posing for Yousuf Karsh.
One wonders how Karsh would have done in today’s world. This is a time of instant gratification, disposable culture and a desperate grasping for fame, at any cost. A cheap exploitative paparazzi shot has as much chance of being celebrated by the public now as does a proper headshot. The embarrassing, rather than the beautiful and meaningful, is often what matters to people now. In spite of the cultural shift, Karsh would have found himself no less relevant today. His original style, his fabulous technique and his ability to disarm his subjects are all skills that would translate to any time period. He also had a good understanding of how to further his career and would most likely have used new technologies and social media to further his goals and remain at the leading edge of portrait photography.
Yousuf Karsh was always looking ahead. When he was asked which of his many iconic picture was his personal favourite, he said: ” My favourite is the one I take tomorrow.”