June 15, 2017
“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 defenses 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.”
Born in December 23, 1908 in Mardin, Armenia while it was part of the Ottoman Empire. An Armenian Refugee that made Canada his nationality with Order of Canada award.
Best known for this Portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein and just about anyone influencing the World we live in between the years of 1945 to 2000.
At the age of 93 he left us while living in Boston, Massachusetts.
John Mowry is an editor for Art of Headshots who studied at the University of Western Ontario. John is a multi-talented in sports, arts and literature.