Yousuf Karsh, Armenian/Canadian (1908 - 2002)

Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf Karsh was born in Mardin, a city in the eastern Ottoman Empire (present Turkey). He grew up during the Armenian Genocide where he wrote, "I saw relatives massacred; my sister died of starvation as we were driven from village to village." At the age of 16, his parents sent Yousuf to live with his uncle George Nakash, a photographer in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. Karsh briefly attended school there and assisted in his uncle’s studio. Nakash saw great potential in his nephew and in 1928 arranged for Karsh to apprentice with portrait photographer John Garo in Boston, Massachusetts, United States. His brother, Malak Karsh, was also a photographer.

Karsh returned to Canada four years later, eager to make his mark. In 1931 he started working with photographer, John Powls, in his studio on the second floor of the Hardy Arcade at 130 Sparks Street in Ottawa, Ontario, close to Parliament Hill. When Powls retired in 1933, Karsh took over the studio. Karsh's first solo exhibition was in 1936 in the Drawing Room of the Château Laurier hotel. He moved his studio into the hotel in 1973, and it remained there until he retired in 1992.

Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King discovered Karsh and arranged introductions with visiting dignitaries for portrait sittings. Karsh's work attracted the attention of varied celebrities and on 30 December 1941 he photographed Winston Churchill, after Churchill gave a speech to Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa.

The image of Churchill brought Karsh international prominence, and is claimed to be the most reproduced photographic portrait in history. In 1967, he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and in 1990 was promoted to Companion.
Of the 100 most notable people of the century, named by the International Who's Who [2000], Karsh had photographed 51. Karsh was also the only Canadian to make the list.

In the late 1990s Karsh moved to Boston and on July 13, 2002, aged 93, he died at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital after complications following surgery. He was interred in Notre Dame Cemetery in Ottawa.

In 2009, in Ottawa, Yousuf Karsh's life and work were celebrated during Festival Karsh, a collaboration between the Canada Museum of Science and Technology and the Portrait Gallery of Canada.

He was made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.

Canada Post honoured the 100th anniversary of the birth of Yousuf Karsh by releasing an artist's series of three stamps depicting Karsh images. The famous Churchill portrait figures on the International Rate stamp and has a face value of $1.60CAN, a lithe side-profile taken in 1956 of Audrey Hepburn graces the American Rate stamp with a face value of $0.96CAN, and a self-portrait of Yousuf himself viewing photographic plates appears on the Domestic Rate stamp with a face value of $0.52CAN. A souvenir sheet set depicting an additional 24 Karsh portraits of some of the world's most famous and interesting persons includes among others: Walt Disney, Mohammed Ali, Mother Teresa, Humphrey Bogart, Indira Gandhi, Sophia Loren, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ernest Hemingway, Nikita Khrushchev, Martin Luther King, Pope John XXIII, Pablo Picasso, Dizzy Gillespie, and Queen Elizabeth II, further confirming the range and scope of Karsh's work.

Karsh has influenced many other photographers in different styles to become more independent and further motivate other artists.

On December 3, 1959, Karsh appeared as a guest challenger on the TV panel show To Tell the Truth.

In 2005, the city of Ottawa established the Karsh Prize, honoring Ottawa photo-based artists, in honor of Yousuf and Malak Karsh. Karsh also photographed the Canadian rock band Rush for their 1984 album Grace Under Pressure. Geddy Lee of Rush has referred to the picture as a typical bat mitzvah photo.

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