Yousuf Karsh was and remains one of the masters of 20th century photography. His body of work includes portraits of statesmen, artists, musicians, authors, scientists, and men and women of accomplishment. His extraordinary and unique portfolio presents the viewer and collectore with an intimate and compassionate view of humanity.
Karsh was a master in the use of studio lights. One aspect of a Karsh portrait was the emphasis on lighting the subject’s hands separately. He photographed many of the great and celebrated personalities of his generation. Journalist George Perry wrote in London’s Sunday Times that:
…when the famous start thinking of immortality, they call for Karsh of Ottawa…
Karsh had a gift for capturing the essence of his subject in the instant of his portrait. As Karsh wrote of his own work in “Karsh Portfolio, 1967”, “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.”
Born in 1908, Yousuf Karsh grew up when Armenia was under Ottoman rule and he witnessed the genocide of Christian Armenians by the new Turk government. At the age of 14, he fled with his family to the safety of Syria. Two years later, young Yousuf was sent to live with his uncle George Nakash, a photographer in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. Karsh attended school there briefly and assisted in his uncle’s studio. Nakash saw great potential in his nephew and, in 1928, arranged for Karsh to apprentice with portrait photographer John Garo of Boston. Karsh returned to Canada four years later, eager to make his mark.
My chief joy is to photograph the great in heart, in mind, and in spirit, whether they be famous or humble.
His work is in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, George Eastman House, La Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the National Portrait Gallery of Australia and many others. The National Archives of Canada holds his complete collection, including negatives, prints and documents. His photographic equipment was donated to Ottawa’s Museum of Science and Technology. Karsh published 15 books of his photographs, which include brief descriptions of the sessions, during which he would ask questions and talk with his subjects to relax them as he composed the portrait.