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Monday, January 27, 2014

Yousuf Karsh

Among Karsh's earliest portrait photos this one has turned out to be his most
famous. Dating from 1941, this iconic image of a scowling Winston Churchill became
a cover for Life magazine, May 21, 1945, as WW II came to an end in Europe.
More than a dozen of Karsh's images have ended up on the cover of Life.
Yousuf Karsh Self-portrait, 1955.
One of the inherent difficulties any portrait artist faces is the fact that he or she is only as famous as those they portray. There are exceptions, of course. Leonardo was more famous than his Mona Lisa, whom he made famous. Thomas Gainsborough was more famous than his Blue Boy. Norman Rockwell was at least as famous as virtually everyone he painted. If you paint a lot of portraits of a lot of famous people, then to some small extent, their fame tends to rub off. These observations also apply to those artists utilizing their skills in portrait photography. Portrait photographers such as Anna Leibovitz, Richard Avedon, and Edward Steichen have become famous primarily for who they've photographed, though their list of celebrities would not be very long if they not very good at their art.

Mackenzie King, 1941, Yousuf Karsh
In terms of portrait photography, one artist, Yousuf Karsh, probably best exemplifies this "rubbing off" of fame from the portrayed to the portrayer. Karsh was Armenian by birth--1908, in the city of Mardin, located along the southern border of present-day Turkey. As a child he endured the Great Armenian Genocide of 1915-22 during which 1.5-million died. He saw relatives massacred and watched his sister starve to death. In 1924 his parents sent their 16-year-old son to Quebec, Canada, to live with his uncle, who happened to be a photographer. Through his uncle, he was apprenticed to the Boston photographer, John Garo. In 1928 Karsh returned to Quebec as an assistant to photographer, John Powls, who retired shortly thereafter, allowing Karsh to take over the business. Karsh moved his studio to Parliament Hill where he came to be noticed by the Prime Minister, Mackenzie King (above, left), who introduced the talented and equally ambitious young photographer to visiting dignitaries. Karsh's list of famous people who posed for his giant 8 by 10-inch format box camera began to grow.

Albert Einstein, 1948, Yousuf Karsh

Karsh's men seldom smiled.
One of his earliest contacts through King was then British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (top). Karsh's pose and expert lighting combined with Churchill's scowling countenance to create an image of the man that still resonates today. Karsh's photo has appeared on British, U.S., Canadian, and Australian stamps, (but not those of Germany). It will soon take its place on the new U.K. five-pound note (due out in 2016). Tradition has it that the famous scowl came as a result of Karsh having snatched away Sir Winston's ever-present cigar just seconds before clicking the shutter. In any case, Churchill was joined on the list of Karsh's famous portraits by historic images of Albert Einstein (above), Ernest Hemingway, Nikita Khrushchev, Martin Luther King Jr., Indira Gandhi, Walt Disney, Pablo Picasso, several popes, numerous movie stars, nearly every President during his lifetime, even Queen Elizabeth II, herself. The queen, lacking a cigar, didn't scowl.

During his long career (he died in 2002 at the age of 94) Yousuf Karsh
worked almost exclusively in black and white. However, on rare
occasions, such as this 1986 portrait of cartoonist, Charles Schulz, (and
some of his papal portraits), Karsh proved equally adept in the use color.


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