Yousuf Karsh – Master Photographer

Day 230 of Colourisation Project – December 23

Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.

Named one of the 100 Most Notable People of the Century in 2000 by International Who’s Who, portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh had already photographed 51 out of the 100 of those Most Notable People.

Yousuf Karsh Bef & Aft

Self Portrait: Yousuf Karsh 1938 – Coloured by Loredana Crupi

Considered the world’s premiere portrait photographer of his time, he is perhaps best-known for his iconic 1941 photo of Winston Churchill. It is possibly one of the most reproduced images in history. Karsh recounts the story of this celebrated photo in his book, Faces of Our Time, published in 1971;

“Churchill’s cigar was ever present. I held out an ashtray, but he would not dispose of it. I went back to my camera and made sure that everything was all right technically. I waited; he continued to chomp vigorously at his cigar. I waited. Then I stepped toward him and, without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, “Forgive me, sir,” and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”

Karsh titled the photograph, The Roaring Lion after Churchill remarked, “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”

No other photographer comes close to Yousuf Karsh in creating as many iconic portraits of such towering figures as he did. In a career spanning 60 years, Ottawa-based Karsh had more than 15,000 portrait sittings of distinguished men and women from a wide variety of fields. Karsh described the sum of all his portraits as a panorama of the ‘great world theatre of the twentieth century.’ An appointment with Karsh was usually an appointment for immortalisation.

His dramatic use of artificial light was a hallmark of his work and much of the success of his portraits was his ability to put his subjects at ease. Working predominantly in black and white, with a large 8×10 bellows Calumet camera, Karsh was a genius for capturing the essence of his subject in the click of a shutter. Karsh explains it in his publication, Karsh Portfolio in 1967,

“Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting interval of opportunity the photographer must act or lose his prize.”

It is worth listing some of his famous subjects to give you an idea of the depth and calibre of his subjects.

They include, in no particular order; Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, Pope John Paul II, Grace Kelly, John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Sophia Loren, Laurence Olivier, George Bernard Shaw, Andy Warhol, Frank Lloyd Wright, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Humphrey Bogart, Mother Theresa, Walt Disney, Mohammed Ali, Martin Luther King, Jawaharlal Nehru, Helen Keller, Georgia O’Keeffe, W. Somerset Maugham, Martha Graham, Charles de Gaulle, Peter Lorre, Grey Owl, Albert Einstein, Robert Borden, Yuri Gagarin, Marshall McLuhan Leonard Bernstein, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Norman Schwarzkopf and many, many more.

Really it’s more a case of who hasn’t he photographed.


Yousuf Karsh, was born at Mardin, Armenian Turkey, this day 23 December in 1908. Having survived the Armenian genocide by the Turkish Ottoman government and witnessing the massacre of relatives, Karsh’s family fled to Canada in 1924, when he was just 15 years old. As fate would have it, he went to live and study with his uncle George Nakashian, a portrait photographer in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Soon after his uncle organised for his apprenticeship in Boston with celebrity portrait photographer John H. Garo from 1928 to 1931.

On returning to Ottawa he established himself as a portrait photographer. In 1935 and within nine years of arriving as a young Armenian refugee, Karsh was appointed official portrait photographer of the Canadian government and the rest as they say, is history.

Karsh died in 2002 at age 93, ten years after closing his Ottawa studio.

He was awarded the Officer of the Order of Canada in 1967 and the Companion of the Order of Canada in 1990 for his services to photography.


“My chief joy is to photograph the great in heart, in mind, and in spirit, whether they be famous or humble.”   –  Yousuf Karsh

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