One of the greatest portrait photographers of the twentieth century, Yousuf Karsh rose from his status of Armenian Genocide survivor to photograph “anyone who was anyone.”
He was born on December 23, 1908, in Mardin, in the province of Diarbekir, to the family of Massih Karsh, a merchant, and Bahai Nakash. The Armenian population of Mardin was mostly Arabic-speaking, and their names were Arabic-looking (Yousuf was the Arabic variant of his Armenian name Hovsep.) In its obituary, The Economist noted that Karsh “thought of himself as an Armenian.”
After the genocide, Karsh and the surviving family members managed to escape to a refugee camp in Aleppo (1922). He migrated to Canada in 1925: “For the moment, it was enough to find myself safe, the massacres, torture, and heartbreak of Armenia behind me,” he wrote in his last years. He went to live and work in Sherbrooke (Quebec) with his maternal uncle George Nakashian (Nakash), a portrait photographer, who taught photography to him. For three years, from 1928 to 1931, Karsh apprenticed in Boston for John H. Garo, the most prominent Armenian photographer in America at the time.
Back to Canada, Karsh opened his first studio in Ottawa in 1932, where he remained for the next forty years. He married French-born actress Solange Gathier (1902−1961) in 1939. After losing his wife to cancer in 1961, Karsh remarried to Estrellita Maria Nachbar, a medical writer, in 1962.
Karsh specialized in photographing almost exclusively famous people. Asked about this, he replied: “I am working with the world's most remarkable cross-section of people. I do believe it's the minority who make the world go around, not the majority.” His initial success came after capturing the attention of Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who helped him arrange photography sessions with visiting dignitaries.
Such an arrangement in 1941 derived in his iconic photo of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (picture). It was taken after a speech on World War II to the Canadian Parliament members. The British politician is particularly noted for his posture and facial expression, which have been compared to the wartime feelings of persistence that prevailed in Great Britain in the face of an all-conquering enemy. The photo, characterized by The Economist as the “most reproduced portrait in the history of photography,” now hangs on the wall of the chamber of the Speaker of the House of Commons in the Canadian Parliament, where it was taken.
During World War II, Karsh photographed political and military leaders, and in the post-war period he began capturing photos of writers, actors, artists, musicians, scientists, and celebrities. Some of his notable portraits included George Bernard Shaw (1943), Dwight Eisenhower (1946), Georgia O’Keeffe (1956), Ernest Hemingway (1957), and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushshev (1963).
Karsh was a visiting professor at Ohio University and at Emerson College in Boston. He earned numerous honorary degrees from Dartmouth College, Ohio University, Tufts University, Syracuse University, Ohio State University, and others. He was awarded the Canada Council Medal in 1965 and the titles of Officer (1967) and Companion (1990) of the Order of Canada. He published around twenty collections of his photographs. The National Archives of Canada acquired his complete collection in 1987, which currently has his 150,000 negatives and a total of 355,000 items.
More than twenty of his photos had been published on the cover of Life magazine by the time he closed his second studio in 1992. He moved to Boston in 1997 with his wife and passed away on July 13, 2002. He was buried in Ottawa.
A bust of Karsh by Canadian-Armenian sculptor Megerditch Tarakdjian was unveiled before Château Laurier, Ottawa, his second studio, on June 9, 2017. It depicts Karsh with his famous camera and was a gift to Canada from Armenia on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations and the 150th anniversary of Canada. The City of Ottawa awards biannually the Karsh Award, dedicated to Yousuf and his brother Malak Karsh to an established professional artist for outstanding artistic work in a photo-based medium.