Born on 23 December 1908 in Mardin, Turkey, Yousuf Karsh became one of the most significant portrait photographers of the twentieth century. After the Armenian Genocide, which began in 1915. After his sister died from starvation, his parents decided to move him to Quebec, Canada, in 1924 to stay with his uncle, George Nakash, who worked as a photographer. By assisting his uncle during his free-time from school, Karsh developed his own taste for photography also gaining experience as an apprentice with portrait photographer, John Garo.
In 1932, Karsh set up his own photographic studio in Ottawa not far from the Canadian Government base. This location proved a significant advantage as it was conveniently close for any official portraits that were required. Indeed, the Prime Minister himself soon commissioned Karsh to take portraits of dignitaries that visited Canada, one of whom was Winston Churchill. Churchill had been visiting the Canadian government to make a speech on 30 December 1941, after visiting Washington. Karsh achieved Churchill's solemn expression by quickly stealing away his newly lit cigar. The resulting, thunderous face was subsequently interpreted as British fortitude in the face of the Nazi threat in Europe. This portrait remains one of Karsh's most significant, and brought him international prominence. It was also the first Karsh portrait to possess the iconic copyright "Karsh of Ottawa", and is one of the most reproduced portraits in the history of photography.
Karsh was a master of studio lighting. Throughout most of his career he used an 8x10 bellows Calumet camera. He has a gift for capturing the personalities of his sitters, and he stated in 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.
Karsh visited in London in 1943, and it was here that he began to use thorough research in preparation for a portrait; he called it doing his homework . As he grew in renown, Karsh's singular style particularly the use of dramatic lighting made him irresistible to a vast number of the twentieth century's famous faces, including Ernest Hemingway, Audrey Hepburn, Pablo Picasso, Grace Kelly and Fidel Castro.
Karsh's works are held in galleries and leading museums all over the world, and he published over fifteen books of his iconic photographs. During his career, Karsh received numerous awards, including the Medal of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (1975) and the Companion of the Order of Canada (1990), as well as obtaining over 24 honorary degrees.
Yousuf Karsh closed his Ottawa studio in June of 1992. He moved to Boston in the late 1990s, where he died, aged 93, on 13 July in 2002 following complications after surgery.