Yousuf Karsh, 93; Photographs Captured Face of 20th Century


Yousuf Karsh, whose formal photographs of many of the 20th century’s great names in the arts, politics and science made him one of the world’s best-known portrait photographers, died Saturday in Boston. He was 93.

Karsh died of complications from surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, according to a hospital spokeswoman. No further details of his medical condition were released.

Based in Ottawa for much of his career, Karsh was perhaps best known for his portrait of Winston Churchill. But his subjects included Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, Albert Schweitzer, Helen Keller and Pablo Picasso, and his photographs of them and thousands of others were memorable as well.


“Karsh was the master of presenting the image of the person he was photographing,” said Stephen White, a Los Angeles-based collector and photography dealer. “Karsh wanted to present his subjects as they were seen by the rest of the world, as larger-than-life characters.”

More often than not, he succeeded in doing just that.

His photograph of Churchill was taken during the British prime minister’s 1941 visit to Ottawa to elicit support for the war effort against Germany.

The cigar-chomping statesman agreed to a formal sitting but gave the photographer only two minutes to make his portrait. The resulting image of Churchill leaning forward slightly, with a hard, determined look in his eye and a clenched jaw, ended up on the cover of Life magazine and was widely circulated in North America and Britain. The photograph came to symbolize the defiant nature of a beleaguered country at war.

As the story goes, Karsh was able to get that expression from Churchill by pulling a cigar from the prime minister’s mouth a moment before the shutter clicked.

Karsh was born in Mardin, Turkey, a trading center in the heavily Armenian area of what was then the Ottoman Empire. His childhood there was not happy, and he would always remember the violence visited upon him and other Armenians by Turks. As a boy he carried rocks in his pockets to fend off attacks from Turkish children.

His family eventually sent him off to the safety of an uncle’s home in Canada. Karsh arrived in Nova Scotia in 1924 with dreams of going into medicine but became interested in his uncle’s photography studio.

Karsh soon dropped out of school to work at the studio full time and began taking photographs on his own with an inexpensive camera. One of his early pictures, a landscape, won a contest at a local department store.

Seeing his nephew’s aptitude with the camera, his uncle sent him off to Boston to study with John H. Garo, a well-known painter and portrait photographer.

Karsh would later say that it was there he learned about the nuances of natural light in photography and natural lightness in life, noting that Garo wrapped up his work each day around 4 p.m. to, as Karsh put it, “hold court” with friends over cocktails.

Karsh returned to Canada with an interest in portraiture and personalities. He moved to Ottawa, opened a photographic studio and began experimenting with the same sort of artificial stage lighting he noticed being used in the city’s theater district.

He developed a formal photographic style that used light to model the faces of those sitting for him. His backgrounds were often simple, spare and solid black, his compositions tight and quite exact.

“My quest in making a photograph is for a quality that I know exists in the personality before me,” Karsh told an interviewer some years ago. “I’m looking for what I sometimes call ‘the inward power,’ and I am more anxious to capture that, or at least interpret it to my own satisfaction, than I am to create the facsimile of an interesting figure with no depth of soul.”

Although he was making a steady living as a portrait photographer in Ottawa, the Churchill picture marked a turning point in his career. His work became widely known and led to new and more interesting opportunities.

With partial funding from the Canadian magazine Saturday Night, Karsh traveled to England in 1943 for a strenuous two-month visit that yielded 42 major portraits, including those of prominent statesmen and members of the royal family.

On an assignment from Life, he went to Washington the next year to photograph more than 70 leading figures in Congress, the Cabinet and the Supreme Court.

The first of his many books of photographs, “Faces of Destiny,” released in 1947, is made up of pictures from these two trips along with Karsh’s anecdotal comments.

Although many of his subjects would visit Ottawa to sit for him, Karsh traveled widely, capturing Pope Pius XII in the Vatican, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace and cellist Pablo Casals in the south of France.

(The Casals photograph is interesting in that it shows the musician with his back to the camera playing his cello in the ruins of an abbey.)

A dapper, intense man with brown eyes, a disarming manner and a winning smile, Karsh also supported the Muscular Dystrophy Assn., photographing the child for its annual poster.

His work was shown widely, including in exhibits at the International Center of Photography in New York City; the Santa Barbara Museum of Art (in a joint show with the work of Margaret Bourke-White); the National Gallery of Canada; and London’s National Portrait Gallery.

Karsh gave up photography in the early 1990s; his last portrait was of President Clinton.

“It is the artist’s job,” Karsh said in his autobiography, “to accomplish two things--to stir the emotions of the viewer and to lay bare the soul of his subject.”

And while he may have stirred the emotions of the viewer, some observers in later years criticized Karsh’s work as being “overlit and monotonously predictable.”

Celebrity portraiture went in different directions, as reflected in the work of Richard Avedon, Annie Liebovitz and Helmut Newton. Those directions were far less formal and far more revealing. But for the traditional formal sitting portrait, there were few better than Karsh.

His first wife, Solange Gauthier, died in 1961. He is survived by his second wife, Estrellita Maria Nachbar. A private funeral will take place in Ottawa, and a memorial service will be held at a later date.