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It’s 13 July, and today we commemorate the death, 11 years ago, of one of the true greats of portrait photography, Yousuf Karsh (23 December 1908 – 13 July 2002).

Of Armenian descent, Karsh was sent by his family to Canada at the age of 16, where he went to live with his uncle, a photographer. He started assisting in his uncle’s studio, and quickly showed potential as a photographer himself. After a stint as apprentice with US portrait photographer John Garo, Karsh returned to Canada to start his own business in 1931. After five years he had his first solo exhibition at the Chateau Laurier hotel in Ottowa, Ontario. His relationship with the hotel continued for many years, and in 1973 he moved his studio into the hotel, from where he continued to operate until his retirement in 1992.

Karsh’s skill as a portrait photographer attracted many high profile clients, but it was a portrait of Winston Churchill, shot in 1941, that elevated him to legendary status. It is claimed that his Churchill portrait is the most reproduced photographic portrait in history. After this image, having your portrait done by Karsh became a celebrity status symbol – of the 100 most notable people of the 20th century (named by the International Who’s Who in 2000), Karsh had photographed 51. George Perry, a journalist with the Sunday Times, succinctly described the prominence of Yousuf Karsh as portrait photographer to the famous and important, when he said, “when the famous start thinking of immortality, they call for Karsh of Ottawa.”

The famous 1941 Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill. According to legend, Karsh only had a few minutes to photograph the great man - quite a daunting prospect. When Churchill entered the room where the portrait was to be taken, he appeared in a fowl mood, seemingly less than keen on the photo shoot. This attitude actually suited Karsh, who relished the challenge to capture his subject's character in his photographs. However, he thought the fact that Churchill had a cigar stuck between his teeth wouldn't work in the portrait, so he instinctively reached out and removed the cigar. This really aggrevated Churchill - his scowl deepened, he thrust his head forward and he angrily placed his hand on his hip. Noticing that this was the perfect moment, Karsh took the picture, and immortalised Churchill in a pose of unconquerable defiance. Despite being difficult during the shoot, Churchill acknowledged Karsh's photographic mastery - he is quoted as saying "You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed." This prompted Karch to title the portrait 'The Roaring Lion'.

The famous 1941 Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill. According to legend, Karsh only had a few minutes to photograph the great man – quite a daunting prospect. When Churchill entered the room where the portrait was to be taken, he appeared in a fowl mood, seemingly less than keen on the photo shoot. This attitude actually suited Karsh, who relished the challenge to capture his subject’s character in his photographs. However, he thought the fact that Churchill had a cigar stuck between his teeth wouldn’t work in the portrait, so he instinctively reached out and removed the cigar. This really aggrevated Churchill – his scowl deepened, he thrust his head forward and he angrily placed his hand on his hip. Noticing that this was the perfect moment, Karsh took the picture, and immortalised Churchill in a pose of unconquerable defiance.
Despite being difficult during the shoot, Churchill acknowledged Karsh’s photographic mastery – he is quoted as saying “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.” This prompted Karch to title the portrait ‘The Roaring Lion’.

Karsh’s mastery of studio lighting was legendary, and he has become associated with a number of distinctive lighting techniques. Lighting the face, Karsh often used two lights placed somewhat behind his subject, on either side, resulting in light bouncing off the sides of both sides of the face, towards the camera. This lighting setup resulted in distinctive highlights on both sides of the subject’s face, with the centre of the face slightly darker.

A portrait I did using the double strip-light lighting technique favoured by Karsh, to create a distinctive double rim-light effect on the face.

A portrait I did using the double strip-light lighting technique favoured by Karsh, to create a distinctive double rim-light effect on the face.

Another unique Karsh trait was to very pertinently light his model’s hands, often with a separate light dedicated to illuminating the hands. In this way he elevated the hands from being mere appendages to being ‘stars’ in their own right in the portrait.

All his classic portraits were shot on a large format Calumet camera dating from the 1940s.

Yousuf Karsh’s legacy looms large over the portrait photography domain, especially in Canada, where he has been honoured through events such as ‘Festival Karsh’, and through the establishment of the ‘Karsh Prize’, recognising Ottowa-based photographic artists.

His work has been included in the permanent collections of many of the top galleries in the world, including the National Galleries of Canada, France and Australia, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

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