Yousuf Karsh came to international prominence with a 1941 Life cover: the famous "English bulldog," portrait of Winston Churchill. Karsh has photographed many thousands of subjects in the last 50 years, principally portraits of distinguished men and women in every field of endeavor: statesmanship, the arts, and the sciences. Karsh prefers to take his portraits in the subject's own environment. His meticulous lighting characteristically emphasizes dramatic highlights and shadows, clarity and rich textures. In his portraits he attempts to convey to the viewer a fusion of the subject's personality with his or her public image and to reveal the sitter's "inward power." Although Karsh's subjects are mainly the achievers of the world, he himself has said that he likes to photograph "the great in spirit, whether they be famous or humble."
Karsh was born in Mardin, Armenia, of Christian Armenian parents. Fleeing Turkish persecution, his family left Armenia in 1922, and in 1924 Karsh was brought to Canada by his uncle Nakash, a photographer. Financial considerations forced him to abandon his original desire to become a physician. Having shown aptitude for photography, Karsh was sent by his uncle to Boston to study under the eminent portrait photographer John H. Garo. In the stimulating humanistic atmosphere of Garo's studio, Karsh became acquainted with Garo's international circle of artistically accomplished friends. It was there that he decided to photograph those who have influenced our era.
After three years in Boston, Karsh returned to Ottawa in 1932 to open his own studio. It was during this period, at the Ottawa Little Theatre, that he was introduced to the use of incandescent lighting (his previous training in Boston having been with available light). After the appearance of his Churchill portrait in Life, which symbolized the indomitable wartime spirit of the British people, Karsh's work was in constant demand and he began to travel throughout the world on portrait assignments, a practice he continues to this day.
In 1943 Karsh extensively photographed British royalty, statesmen, and celebrities. He made portraits of political figures in Washington, D.C., and at the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945.
Among the illustrious figures Karsh has photographed are a succession of royalty, Popes, and presidents (among them John F. Kennedy); and such other celebrities as Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Pablo Casals, Ernest Hemingway, and Georgia O'Keefe. In regard to his working methods, Karsh has emphasized the photographer's need for rapport: "In a successful portrait sitting the photographer must prepare by learning as much as he can about his subject so that immediate rapport will hopefully be realized, for the heart and the mind are the true lens of the camera."