Behind the camera: Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002) He signed his photos ‘Karsh of Ottawa’
Where: Speaker’s chamber in the Canadian House of Commons
Photo Summary: A glowering Winston Churchill then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Picture Taken: December 30, 1941 after a speech given to the Canadian House of Commons
Most reproduced portrait in history
-The Economist – July 18th 2002
Yousuf Karsh was arguably the most famous Canadian photographer in history. He captured this photo of Winston Churchill just after he finished giving a rousing speech at the Canadian House of Commons. The scowling Churchill portrait perfectly captured the defiant 1941 Churchill and is the most reproduced portrait in history. This image symbolized Churchill and the British Empire fighting alone against the Fascist Nazi threat.
1941 saw Churchill leading the UK, the only European country still resisting the Nazis. While touring the Dominion to rally for Commonwealth support, Churchill gave what many remember as a rousing speech to the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa:
When I warned [the French] that Britain would fight on alone, whatever they did, their Generals told their Prime Minister and his divided cabinet: ‘In three weeks, England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.
Some chicken…Some neck!
After the speech, Canadian Prime Minister King had arranged for a portrait session to commemorate the event and told Karsh the day before, “When Churchill finishes his speech, I will bring him directly to you.” King ushered Churchill into the room but he refused to enter demanding, “What’s going on?” Unamused and caught by surprise Churchill lit up a cigar and growled, “Why was I not told of this?” The photographer Yousuf Karsh wrote what happened next:
He was in no mood for portraiture and two minutes were all that he would allow me … Two … minutes in which I must try to put on film a man who had already written or inspired a library of books baffled all his biographers, filled all the world with his fame, and me, on this occasion, with dread. [Churchill marched into the room] regarding my camera as he might regard the German enemy.
… chewing vigorously on his cigar … He reluctantly followed me to where my lights and camera were set up. I offered him an ash tray for his cigar but he pointedly ignored it, his eyes boring into mine. At the camera, I made sure everything was in focus, closed the lens and stood up, my hand ready to squeeze the shutter release, when something made me hesitate. Then suddenly, with a strange boldness, almost as if it were an unconscious act, I stepped forward and said, “Forgive me, sir.” Without premeditation, I reached up and removed the cigar from his mouth.
… At this the Churchillian scowl deepened, the head was thrust forward belligerently, and the hand placed on the hip in an attitude of anger … I clicked the shutter. Then he relaxed. “All right,” he grunted as he assumed a more benign attitude, “you may take another one.”
After developing the image the young Armenian immigrant knew he had a winner but didn’t know how to go about publicizing it. Eventually, he was able to get in contact with Life magazine who used it in their magazine and then on May 21, 1945, cover. For the image that would make what Karsh called, “the turning point in my career” Life paid him the grand total of $100.
Yousuf Karsh was an ethnic Armenian born in Mardin Turkey on December 23, 1908. He grew up under intense Armenian-persecution where he wrote, “I saw relatives massacred; my sister died of starvation as we were driven from village to village.”
To escape persecution when he was 16, his family sent him to a photographer uncle named George Nakash who lived in Canada. When he first arrived in Eastern Quebec, young Yousuf wanted to be a doctor and worked in his uncle’s studio to raise money for medical school.
Showing promise as a photographer, Nakash sent him to study under a family friend, John Garo, a renowned photographer who lived in Boston, USA. For three years Yousuf learned the tricks of the trade often accompanying Garo to high society functions across the Eastern seaboard. During this time he became engrossed in photography and any thoughts of being a doctor were forgotten.
He returned to Ottawa and set up a studio because, “I chose Canada because it gave me my first opportunity and I chose Ottawa because, as the capital, it was a crossroads that offered access to a wide range of subjects,” As word of his talents spread he set up studios in other cities like New York and London for the convenience of his clients but it was in Canada that he captured his famous Churchill portrait.
The Churchill shot cemented his fame and throughout his career, he went on to shoot many famous portraits and many famous people. On July 13, 2002, Karsh died at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital after complications following surgery. He was 93 years old.
Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill
Churchill was born on 30 November 1874 into a famous English aristocratic family, the Spencer-Churchills. He spent much of his childhood at boarding schools where he had little if any contact with his parents. He went on to the Royal Military College in Sandhurst and graduated eighth out of a class of 150 in December 1894.
As an officer in the British Army, he fought in a number of colonial wars where he showed courage on the front lines. In 1900 he started his political career and spent much of the rest of his life in British politics. In the run-up to the second world war, he fiercely opposed the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler. When Chamberlain was forced out of office Churchill, then the First Lord of the Admiralty was chosen as successor. During the difficult war years, Churchill is credited with having the strength to never surrender to the Axis onslaught. This defiance is captured perfectly in Karsh’s picture.
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!
After the war, he lost the 1945 election but was returned to the Prime Minister’s office in 1951 before then retiring in ’55. When he died in 1965, his state funeral was attended by one of the largest assemblies of world leaders in history.
Yousuf Karsh lived in a high end Ottawa hotel, Château Laurier for years with his first wife and he had his studio there until 1992. The hotel had come into possession of 15 of Karsh’s works, including the Churchill portrait. They hung with pride in its Reading Lounge. In a brazen art theft in August of 2022, it was reported that the Churchill portrait had been replaced with a copy. The print might have a high value to Churchill collectors as Michel Prévost, president of La Société d’histoire de l’Outaouais, confirms that “no prints of Karsh’s work have been allowed since his negatives were given to Library and Archives Canada in the 1990s.”