The Daily Whim

The Daily Whim

Sat. Jul 13, 2002

Yousuf Karsh, 1908-2002

Yousuf Karsh, 1908-2002 – You may not know the name, but you know his work. Yousuf Karsh passed away today at the age of 93. He was one of the greatest portrait photographers of the past century: "A classic rags-to-riches immigrant story [...] Karsh was born in Turkish Armenia, growing up as a Christian in predominantly Muslim Turkey. Karsh was just 14 when the family fled the horror of genocide in Armenia for freedom in Syria, with nothing but the belongings on their backs [...] In the latest edition of Who’s Who (The International Who’s Who 2000), which listed the most notable people of the last century, Karsh was the only Canadian of the 100 famous people listed 51 of whom Karsh had photographed."

Classic images from the last century, of Churchill, Warhol, Einstein, and Hemingway. A little time spent looking through the archives at the George Eastman House reveals Karsh’s distinct style, not only of capturing people, but in his dramatic theatrical lighting.

His ”breakthrough” image was of Winston Churchill, and the method he used to get it is revealing and amusing, as well as a prime example of what often makes a great photographer: they’re control freaks.

"When photographer Yousef Karsh set out to make a portrait of Winston Churchill in 1941, Great Britain’s prime minister lighted a fresh cigar and puffed vigorously.

Karsh held out an ashtray, but Churchill ignored it. Karsh waited and Churchill continued to chomp on his stogie. Finally the photographer approached his subject and plucked the cigar out of his mouth.

’By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me,’ Karsh recalled. ’It was at that instant that I took the photograph.’

Karsh’s Churchill became one of the most widely reproduced images in the history of photography. Some have even suggested that the glowering, don’t-mess-with-me image helped the Allies win World War II in Europe."

Yes, he was a photographer of that importance. And while he shall be missed, he leaves us a world of inspiration in his archives. It is a legacy very few can match.

Peanut Gallery

1  Richard Heddleson wrote:

Now we're on your turf. Bummer. I grew up with that photograph of Churchill. A thousand words are not enough.

Comment by Richard Heddleson · 07/13/2002 08:36 PM
2  Marian wrote:

I had the pleasure of meeting Yousef Karsh and his wife in 1984. My husband had hired him to photograph Billy Joel for the Greatest Hits album (the shoot was thrown out by Christie Brinkley because it made Billy look "too ugly", and Patrick Demarchalier shot the now famous album cover.) Karsh's work was, of course, brilliant...just not "pretty". He was an amazing man who had tales to tell about photographing The Marx Brothers (his favorites), Sophia Loren, Queen Elizabeth, and so many others. I will never forget him.

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