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“Karsh of Ottawa”: Capturing Greatness

For the Week of Monday, December 18, 2017

On December 22, 1967, Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh became an Officer (later promoted to Companion) of the Order of Canada.

Yousuf Karsh self-portrait (1936)
© Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada

Karsh was born in Mardin (in modern-day Turkey) on December 23, 1908. He immigrated to Canada in 1924, living with his uncle, commercial portrait photographer George Nakashian in Sherbrooke, Quebec, with whom he began his photographic training. On Nakashian’s recommendation, Karsh went to Boston in 1928 to apprentice with prominent photographer John Garo. He taught Karsh essential technical skills, explained lighting dynamics, and encouraged him to study the techniques of great Renaissance portraitists.

After several years under Garo’s tutelage, Karsh opened his own studio in Ottawa, Ontario, in 1932. He began frequenting the Ottawa Little Theatre, making connections that led him to photograph Governor General Lord Bessborough and his wife. Their portraits appeared in the Illustrated London News and periodicals across Canada.

Taken December 30, 1941, Churchill glares at Karsh because the portraitist had plucked the cigar from his mouth. A second picture taken that day shows a smiling Churchill, amused by Karsh’s daring
©Yousuf Karsh, Library and Archives Canada

Karsh soon became a favourite photographer of Ottawa’s politicians and, in December 1941, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, a friend and patron, invited Karsh to photograph British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The resulting portrait seemed to embody Churchill’s solemn resolution to defeat Nazi Germany in the Second World War. In 1943, Karsh was invited to tour wartime England, photographing such prominent figures as George Bernard Shaw.

Karsh wanted to photograph greatness, capturing a natural pose or characteristic gesture that expressed the subject’s unique personality. He researched his famous clients exhaustively, hoping to engage them in conversation, which might put them at ease or ignite their passion. He often travelled to subjects’ homes or workplaces to photograph them in their own environment. His works include iconic portraits of Albert Einstein (1948), Indira Gandhi (1956), and Martin Luther King Jr. (1962).The photographic legacy of Yousuf Karsh continues to captivate imaginations today.

Karsh’s first studio was in Hardy Arcade, a federal heritage building, and William Lyon Mackenzie King is a designated national historic person. To learn more about Canadian photography, read A Great Inuit Artist and Photographer, “Wait for me, Daddy,” and Say Cheese! A celebrity photographer is born in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada, and be sure to visit the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada webpage. Explore Canada 150!

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