I didn't know much about Yousuf Karsh until I went to an exhibition of his work in Paris a few years ago. There's some special about seeing large prints up close, and I think especially for Karsh's portraits that are often more traditional, classic and nuanced than other portrait styles.
You could say that Karsh had a difficult childhood. He was born in 1908 in what is now Turkey. In the midst of the genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman empire, his family were exiled to Aleppo in Syria. His family then did all they could, borrowing money in order to allow 16-year-old Yousuf to emigrate to what they hoped would be a safer future in Canada.
Karsh stayed with his uncle, George Nakash, who ran a photography studio in Sherbrooke. Nakash gave Karsh a camera to try out and was soon impressed enough to arrange for Karsh to be formally trained in Boston. After assisting his uncle on his return, he opened his own studio at the age of 25 in Ottawa.
In addition to the portrait studio, Karsh was also practicing journalism and in 1936 photographed a visiting Franklin Roosevelt with Canadian Prime Minister William Mackenzie King. The photograph started a friendship with Mackenzie King that lead to many portrait opportunities for Karsh, including his big breakthrough in terms of fame and recognition, his portraits of Winston Churchill in 1941.
Above and below are two of my personal favorites from Karsh. The portrait of Casals is said to be the only time he photographed a portrait from behind, but he said that it felt right to do so at the time. I love the composition, lighting and the mood that it generates.
Lessons to learn from Yousuf Karsh
Karsh had studied, both studio lighting techniques and the art of interacting with a portrait subject. He almost always used artificial light to create strong highlights on the face of his subjects, and endeavored to find and show something of the character of his subjects in his images.
Respect. I get the impression that Karsh was extremely polite, well dressed and well-mannered. It also seems that he was relatively serious and intense in his portrait sessions, intent on his purpose of creating the image he desired.
Boldness. Push when you have to. It must have taken some courage to pluck a cigar from the mouth of Winston Churchill, an action which created the expression in the 1941 portrait.