Yousuf Karsh CC (Armenian name: Hovsep Karsh; December 23, 1908 – July 13, 2002), was an Armenian-Canadian photographer known for his portraits of notable individuals. He has been described as one of the greatest portrait photographers of the 20th century.
An Armenian Genocide survivor, Karsh migrated to Canada as a refugee. By the 1930s he established himself as a significant photographer in Ottawa, where he lived most of his adult life, though he traveled extensively for work. His iconic 1941 photograph of Winston Churchill was a breakthrough point in his 60-year career, through which he took numerous photos of known political leaders, men and women of arts and sciences. Over 20 photos by Karsh appeared on the cover of Life magazine, until he retired in 1992.
Karsh was born to Armenian parents Amsih Karsh, a merchant, and Bahai Nakash, on December 23, 1908 in Mardin, Diyarbekir Vilayet, Ottoman Empire. The city's Armenian population was largely Arabic-speaking. His Armenian name Hovsep is a variant of Joseph, while Yousuf is the Arabic version of the same name. He grew up during the Armenian Genocide, during which some of his family were murdered.Karsh and his family escaped to a refugee camp in Aleppo, Syria in 1922 in a month-long journey with a Kurdish caravan.[The Economist noted in their obituary of Karsh that he "thought of himself as an Armenian" and, according to Vartan Gregorian, "Although he was proud to be Canadian, Karsh was equally proud to be Armenian.
Karsh was sent to Canada by his family. He arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia on December 31, 1923 by ship from Beirut. He immediately moved to Sherbrooke, Quebec to live with his maternal uncle George Nakashian (Nakash), a portrait photographer.[ Karsh worked for, and was taught photography by his uncle. He gave Karsh a Box Brownie camera. From 1928 to 1931, Karsh apprenticed in Boston, Massachusetts for John H. Garo, the most prominent Armenian photographer in America at the time who had made a name for himself photographing Boston celebrities.
Karsh settled in Ottawa and opened his first studio in 1932. It was located on the second floor of a building at 130 Sparks Street, which was later named the Hardy Arcade. He remained there until 1972, when he moved to Château Laurier. He was known professionally as "Karsh of Ottawa",which was also his signature.He achieved initial success by capturing the attention of Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who helped Karsh arrange photography sessions with visiting dignitaries.
Throughout his life, Karsh photographed "anyone who was anyone." When asked why he almost exclusively captured famous people, he replied, "I am working with the world's most remarkable cross-section of people. I do believe it's the minority who make the world go around, not the majority." He once also jokingly remarked, "I do it for my own immortality. By the time he retired in 1992, more than 20 of his photos had appeared on the cover of Life magazine. Karsh's photos were known for their use of dramatic lighting, which became the hallmark of his portrait style. He had studied it with both Garo in Boston and at the Ottawa Little Theatre, of which he was a member.
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