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Snapshots in History: December 23: Remembering Yousuf Karsh and Portrait Photography

December 23, 2014 | John P. | Comments (0)







On December 23 and beyond, take a moment to remember Armenian-Canadian Yousuf Karsh (December 23, 1908-July 13, 2002), a portrait photographer who made a name for himself by photographing famous people such as Joan Crawford, Albert Einstein, Indira Gandhi, and Ernest Hemingway, to name four. In fact, it was Karsh’s famous photograph of a scowling British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Ottawa on December 30, 1941 that not only became (arguably) the most reproduced portrait photograph in history but symbolized Great Britain’s determination to fight on during the earlier half of the Second World War. Karsh had taken away Churchill’s cigar that resulted in the now famous facial scowl.

Karsh paid a great deal of attention to studio lighting and often shone separate lighting on the subject’s hands for effect. Karsh tried to sum the nature of a photographic subject through the moment taken with the portrait, and to reveal any inner secrets.

Consider the following titles for borrowing from Toronto Public Library collections:


Karsh beyond the camera

Karsh: beyond the camera / Yousuf Karsh and David Travis, 2012. Book.

This book is based upon nine hours of taped conversations between Yousuf Karsh and his assistant Jerry Fiedler over many portraits taken by Karsh and their accompanying sessions. View over seventy (70) duotone photographs and the context underlying each one regarding Karsh’s preparation, the personality of the portrait involved etc. Art curator David Travis helps the reader by organizing the content into this book itself.  


Regarding heroes

Regarding heroes / Yousuf Karsh, David Travis and Patricia Kouba, 2009. Book.

Yousuf Karsh employed hero worship in expressing admiration for a variety of people. Combine that idea with his expertise in portrait photography and his desire to express the humanity in his photographic subjects. Art curator David Travis used the introductory essay to discuss Karsh’s use of lighting to highlight the portrait subject’s personality. Patricia Kouba wrote the biographical sketches of the portrait subjects.


Portrait in light and shadow: the life of Yousuf Karsh / Maria Tippett, 2007. Book.

This biography was written with the support of the Karsh family, his colleagues, and that of the Karsh archive in Ottawa. Follow the life of a small boy escaping the Armenian Genocide in the First World War, immigrating to Canada in the 1920s, and learning the techniques of portrait photography that resulted in a sixty-year career of travelling the world and of photographing famous people. Sixty (60) of Karsh’s portraits are reproduced in the biography, accompanied by a discussion of Yousuf Karsh’s mastery of the camera and of the importance of lighting. Over his lifetime, Karsh photographed some 50,000 portraits.  


Karsh a sixty year retrospective

Karsh: a sixty-year retrospective [rev. ed.] / Yousuf Karsh, 1996. Book.

View nearly 200 portrait photographs of people taken by Yousuf Karsh including Andy Warhol, Ronald Reagan, and Graeme Greene.


Consider the following documentaries about Yousuf Karsh from Toronto Public Library collections:

Karsh is history: Yousuf Karsh and portrait photography  / director, Joseph Hillel; producer, Ian McLaren; written by Harold Crooks, Joseph Hillel; produced in association with Knowledge, TVO; produced by Grand Nord, 2009. DVD. Documentary.

This documentary was produced to celebrate the centennial anniversary of Karsh’s birth in 1908. Learn how to be photographed by “Karsh of Ottawa” became such an important part of the world’s cultural fabric. Explore the variety of meanings that portrait photography has for art critics and curators, ordinary people, and others the world over.

Aussi disponible en français comme:

Karsh un regard sur l'histoire: [Yousuf Karsh et la photographie de portrait]. DVD. Documentaire.


Karsh: the searching eye / Harry Rasky; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 1986. DVD. Documentary.

Watch this biographical portrait of portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh. See Karsh at a working photo session as well as examples of his work. American composer Leonard Bernstein appears as a special guest in the documentary.


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