Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf Karsh
Born December 23, 1908
Mardin, Ottoman Turkey
Died July 13, 2002 (at age 93)
Boston, Massachusetts
Nationality American-Canadian

Yousuf Karsh was a famous American-Canadian photographer. He is best known for photographing some of the biggest names in politics, including Winston Churchill, Indira Gandhi, and John F. Kennedy, just to name a few. Some of his photographs have become iconic as they have been featured on the cover of some of the world’s most popular publications.

Early Life

Yousuf was born on December 23, 1908, in Mardin, Turkey, which was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. When he turned 16, he was sent by his parents to live with his uncle, George Nakash, who was a photographer in Canada. Yousuf briefly assisted his uncle in his photo studio while he was in school.

George saw great potential in Yousuf Karsh and in 1928, he arranged for Karsh to apprentice with portrait photographer John Garo in Boston, Massachusetts. After four years, Yousuf went back to Canada very eager to start his work in photography.

Early Career

In 1931, Yousuf Karsh started working with photographer John Powls in his studio close to Parliament Hill. In 1933, Powls retired and Yousuf took over the studio. His first solo exhibition was in 1936 in the Drawing Room of the Chateau Laurier hotel.

In 1973, he moved his studio into the hotel and remained there until he retired in 1992. The Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, discovered Karsh and arranged introductions with visiting dignitaries for portrait sittings. Yousuf’s work attracted the attention of numerous celebrities and on December 30, 1941, he photographed Winston Churchill after giving a speech to the Canadian House of Commons. This photograph brought him international prominence. It is actually acclaimed to be the most reproduced photographic portrait in history.

Major Works and Achievements

Karsh 2In 1967, Karsh was made an officer of the Order of Canada and in 1990, he was promoted to Companion. Out of the 100 most notable people of the century named by the 2000 International Who’s Who list, Yousuf had photographed 51 of them. He was also the only Canadian to make the list himself.

Yousuf was a master of studio lights. He photographed many great celebrated personalities of his generation and he had a gift for capturing the essence of his subject in the instant of his portrait. He also published 15 books of his photographs. The books include brief descriptions of the sessions during which he would questions and talk with his subjects to relax them as he composed the portrait.

Some of the celebrities he photographed included Muhammad Ali, Fidel Castro, W. H. Auden, Marian Anderson, Pablo Casals, Joan Baez , Winston Churchill, Princess Elizabeth, Indira Gandhi, Albert Einstein, Ruth Draper, Grey Owl, Helen Keller, Pope John Paul II, Andy Warhol and Marian Anderson.

Recognition and Awards

In Ottawa in 2009, Yousuf’s life and work were celebrated during Festival Karsh. He was made a member of Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. The Canada Post honored the 100th anniversary of Yousuf’s birth by releasing an artist’s series of three stamps depicting Karsh images.

During his lifetime, he influenced many other photographers in different styles to become more independent and motivate other artists. In 2005, Ottawa established the Karsh Prize to honor Ottawa-based photo artists in memory of Yousuf Karsh and his brother, Malak Karsh, who was a well-respected photographer as well.

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