YOUSUF KARSH (1908-2002)

Yousuf Karsh was one of the most significant portrait photographers of the twentieth century. His portraits are easily recognisable for their bold use of studio lighting and closely cropped composition. Karsh's photographs of the best-known politicians and cultural figures of the day have become their most enduring portraits.
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GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, 1943 by YOUSUF KARSH (1908-2002) - photograph for sale from Beetles & Huxley

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, 1943

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WINSTON CHURCHILL, 1941 by YOUSUF KARSH (1908-2002) - photograph for sale from Beetles & Huxley

WINSTON CHURCHILL, 1941

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ERNEST HEMINGWAY, 1957 by YOUSUF KARSH (1908-2002) - photograph for sale from Beetles & Huxley

ERNEST HEMINGWAY, 1957

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QUEEN ELIZABETH II AND PRINCE PHILIP, DUKE OF EDINBURGH, AUGUST 2, 1966 by YOUSUF KARSH (1908-2002) - photograph for sale from Beetles & Huxley

QUEEN ELIZABETH II AND PRINCE PHILIP, DUKE OF EDINBURGH, AUGUST 2, 1966

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WINSTON CHURCHILL, 1941 by YOUSUF KARSH (1908-2002) - photograph for sale from Beetles & Huxley

WINSTON CHURCHILL, 1941

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Early Life

Born in Mardin, Armenia, on 23 December 1908 to Abdel al-Massih Karsh and his wife, Bahiyah Jurjos Nakash, as a young child Karsh lived through the Turkish genocide committed against the Armenian population. The genocide irrevocably coloured Karsh's early childhood, particularly as his father was arrested and had to work as a forced labourer. In 1921, however, Massih, his wife and three young children were allowed to flee from Mardin to Syria, with only a donkey and no belongings.

In 1923 Bahiyah's brother, George Nakash, wrote to her from Canada, to ask whether she would send one of her sons to help in his photography studio and in the autumn of 1923, at the age of 17, Karsh made the journey to Sherbrooke, Canada. At first Karsh wanted to study medicine but in the summer of 1926 he went to work in Nakash's studio. He quickly became enraptured with photography and would take his small camera that his uncle had given him out to the fields and woods around Sherbrooke at the weekend.

Nakash arranged an apprenticeship with his friend and fellow photographer, John H. Garo, in Boston. A fellow Armenian, Garo was a respected portraitist who encouraged Karsh to attend evening art classes where he studied the Old Masters, specifically Rembrandt and Velázquez, and learnt about the rudiments of composition and lighting. Karsh regarded Garo as the presiding influence over his early career.

Karsh of Ottawa

In 1931 Karsh left Boston for Ottawa, with the hope that the capital would afford him more opportunities to photograph dignitaries and international visitors. He gained work photographing the actors at the Ottawa Little Theatre where he was introduced to the possibilities of working with strong theatre lights, as well as to the elite classes of Ottawa. The theatre was also important as the place where he met the French actress, Solange Gauthier, whom he would go on to marry in 1939.

With the help of a loan from Nakash, Karsh opened a studio on the two floors above a flower shop on Sparks Street. Undercutting his competitors, he charged one dollar for a finished print and photographed businessmen, debutantes, brides and diplomats. His first important commission came from the Governor-General and Countess of Bessborough, whom he had met at the Little Theatre, and further commissions from aristocrats and diplomats quickly followed.

In 1936 Karsh was invited to photograph President Roosevelt, the first American president to pay an official visit to Canada. Joining the press corps to travel to Quebec for the sitting, Karsh met Prime Minister Mackenzie King who would facilitate Karsh's famous portrait of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill. In 1941 Churchill was visiting Washington D.C. and Ottawa with hopes of compelling the United States and Canada to contribute to the war effort. Mackenzie King invited Karsh to watch Churchill's speech in the House of Commons and then to photograph him. After Churchill had finished his speech he was directed into the Speaker's Chamber where Karsh had set up his equipment. He was irritated when he entered to find Karsh's glaring lights and annoyed that he had not been told about the photograph. Karsh tried to make Churchill discard his cigar but he refused to dispose of it in the ashtray. Karsh watched Churchill puffing on his cigar from behind his camera and waited before stepping towards him and taking the cigar out his mouth. Karsh took his photograph and captured the glare of the world's most famous politician. Impressed by the young photographer's audacity, Churchill let him take another photograph for which this time he smiled. Published worldwide by newspapers and magazines, the photograph established Karsh's international reputation and would make him the world's most sought-after photographer.

International Acclaim

Karsh travelled to England in early 1943 on board a Norwegian freight ship carrying explosives. Mackenzie King had asked him to go to photograph the major players in the war in order to show the rest of the world that Canada was playing a part in the war effort. Over the course of the trip he made some of his earliest classic' portraits of George Bernard Shaw, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the British Royal Family. Karsh's work from this period utilises the theatrical lighting that came to define his style, the profile of his sitters often illuminated by his multiplicity of flood, spot and background lights.

After his trip to England, Karsh began a period of extensive travel to undertake assignments. In the aftermath of the war public interest turned from statesmen and diplomats to sportsmen, musicians, businessmen and Hollywood stars. At this time, he also had the opportunity to help his parents and two of his brothers join him from Syria when they were granted special dispensation by the Canadian government at his request. In 1952 Karsh took on an assignment for Maclean's magazine to photograph Canada's post-war economic development. This short photojournalist period in his career saw him travel through the country in 1952- 3 to photograph Canadian cities and workers. Karsh made over 8,000 negatives for the project over a seventeen-month period and Maclean's published 280 photographs.

By the late 1950s, Karsh had become as much of a celebrity as his sitters. During the decade he photographed the most famous people in the world, including Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Audrey Hepburn, Ernest Hemingway and Georgia O'Keefe. He published a book, Portraits of Greatness, which sold out before the press events for its release. In 1960 an exhibition of his portraits was mounted at the National Gallery of Canada. All this success came at a price, however, and in 1959 Karsh suffered a heart attack from over-work. The same year his mother died and Solange learned that she had cancer. In 1961, Solange died and Karsh lost his most important supporter.

In 1962 Karsh married again, this time to a medical writer and historian, Estrellita Machbar, whom he had met during a portrait session in Chicago. In 1987 Karsh gave his archives, including his negatives, to the National Archives of Canada, where Jerry Fielder, his former apprentice, became the curator of the collection. Karsh continued to work through the 1980s and into the 90s, one of the most successful photographs from his later years is a double portrait of the newly elected American president, Bill Clinton, and his wife, Hillary. The Karsh studio did not close until 1992, by which time Karsh had photographed every Canadian prime minister since Mackenzie King, every French president since Charles de Gaulle, every British prime minister since Winston Churchill and every U.S. president since Herbert Hoover.

In 1997 Karsh and Estrellita moved to Boston and took up residence in an apartment close to the Museum of Fine Arts. They donated 199 portraits to the museum's permanent collection. Karsh died in Boston on 13 July 2002, at the age of 93. In 2001 he was included in the International Who's Who list of the 100 most influential people of the twentieth century. Karsh was the only Canadian, and the only photographer, on the list.

Exhibitions and Awards

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.

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