“There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record.” -Yousuf Karsh

Yousuf Karsh is inarguably the greatest photographic portraitist of the twentieth century. His subjects are a whos-who of celebrities, politicians, royalty, movers and shakers, authors and astronauts. His catalog of photos and stories about the sessions are engaging vignettes into this master of photographing people.

The young Karsh

Yousuf Karsh was born in Armenia, now a part of Turkey. He grew up in Syria and at age 16 was sent to Quebec, Canada to study photography with his uncle George Nakash. Karsh wanted to go into medicine when an apprenticeship opportunity with Boston photographer John H. Garo came to him. He accepted the apprenticeship to work under Garo. Garo photographed well-known musicians, statesman, artists and journalists. It was during his three years working for and with Garo that Karsh honed the techniques and skills of photography. It was also when he resolved to photograph “those men and women who leave their mark on the world.”

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

The Ottawa studio

Karsh opened his studio in Ottawa in 1931. He did well. In 1941 he made the portrait that cemented him as a premiere photographer — the picture of Winston Churchill scowling. This was during the first part of World War II before the United States had entered the fight. Churchill was in Canada addressing the Parliament. He paused for the portrait with his cigar perched between his lips. Karsh stepped up to the British Prime Minister and snatched the cigar away, apologizing as he made his way back to release the shutter.

It should be the aim of every photographer to make a single exposure that shows everything about the subject. I have been told that my portrait of Churchill is an example of this.

Yousuf Karsh with Albert Einstein 1948
Yousuf Karsh with Albert Einstein 1948

His subjects

A list of Karsh’s subjects is long, formidable and storied. Here is a very small sampling: Artists Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe and Juan Miro, world leaders John Kennedy, Fidel Castro and Nikita Kruschev,  scientists Albert Einstein and Albert Schweitzer, sports figures Mummahod Ali, explorers Jacques Cousteau, royalty, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Grace and Jackie Kennedy, movie stars Laurence Olivia with Vivien Leigh, Joan Crawford, Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, have been immortalized by Karsh and his 8 by 10″ camera.

Karsh loved photographing women.

The trouble with photographing beautiful women is that you never get into the dark room until after they’ve gone.


His body of work included 50,000 original prints, 260,000 negatives and transparencies. They were sold to the National Archives of Canada in 1987. His books include “The Faces of Destiny,” “In Search of Greatness: Reflections of Yousuf Karsh,” “Karsh Portfolio,” “Karsh Portraits” and “Karsh: A Fifty-Year Retrospective.”

Look and think before opening the shutter. The heart and mind are the true lens of the camera.

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.

50 years ago… a giant leap for mankind

L to R: Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong by Yousuf Karsh 1969
L to R: Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong by Yousuf Karsh 1969
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