Yousuf Karsh: Pursuing Greatness

Black-and-white drawing of a vehicle resembling a flying saucer. There are various annotations, measurements and dimensions written on the paper.

In this episode we explore the story of Yousuf Karsh who came to Canada as a teenager and pursued his dream to become an internationally renowned photographer. We are joined by Karsh expert Dr. Robert Evans and LAC photo archivist Jill Delaney. They will speak to us about who Yousuf Karsh was, what makes his photographs so unique and appealing, why he’s important to Canadians and what is included in Library and Archives Canada’s Yousuf Karsh fonds.

Duration: 50:54

File size: 47 MB Download MP3

Publish Date: July 28, 2015

  • Transcript of podcast episode 23

    Jessica Ouvrard: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.

    In this episode we explore the story of Yousuf Karsh, a man who came to Canada as a teenager and pursued his dream to become an internationally renowned photographer. We are joined by Karsh expert Dr. Robert Evans and LAC photo archivist Jill Delaney. They will speak to us about who Yousuf Karsh was, what makes his photographs so unique and appealing, why he’s important to Canadians and what is included in Library and Archives Canada’s Yousuf Karsh fonds.

    If you are interested in viewing images associated with this podcast, you can follow along by viewing our Flickr gallery. You can access a direct link at

    Hi Robert.

    Robert Evans: Hello Jessica.

    JO: Thank you for being with us here today.

    RE: It’s my pleasure.

    JO: Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you developed an interest in Karsh?

    RE: Well, I have a Masters in Art History dealing mostly with Canadian photography. Then when I was pursuing my doctorate, an opportunity came up to do some work at the Portrait Gallery part of Library and Archives Canada on the Karsh centennial exhibition, which was being put together between the Portrait Gallery and the Canadian Science and Technology Museum. Even though I didn’t know much about Karsh when I started it, I had a broad context to put his work into.

    Then over the next year or so, I went from working on the exhibition to doing mostly research as they brought in a large curatorial team and in particular the early days of Karsh. The part of the exhibition that was called “Becoming Karsh,” I did a lot of work on that. I also worked for years as a photographer, so I was sort of the “go-to” person on the curatorial team for photographic matters. What is this red stuff on the negative? Why would he do it this way? What was this material? That sort of thing.

    JO: The more technical…

    RE: Yeah, the more technical side of it. So that way I found Karsh really fascinating because he always downplayed the technical side of things, but I mean what went on the darkroom was amazing.

    JO: A lot has been written about Yousuf Karsh and his background. Can you give us a quick summary of who he is and his importance to Canadians?

    RE: His family was Armenian. They were forced to flee, or as he said, allowed to flee to Syria in the early 1920s. Then he had an opportunity to come to Canada to live with his uncle George Nakash in Sherbrooke in 1924. It is a story of rags to riches; I mean it really is amazing that this immigrant boy who was really a visible minority when he came to Ottawa in the 1930s—and I mean extremely visible minority—and that he was able to really make a name for himself on the international stage from what was relatively a small place, Ottawa.

    His importance to Canadians is—it’s really a feel good story about people who come to Canada and who can create and pursue their dream. Mind you at the same time Ottawa wasn’t his first choice. He wanted to go to Washington; he wanted to go to the States, but I think Ottawa served him just fine.

    JO: So what separated him from other photographers?

    RE: Well, people talk about his lighting, people talk about his print quality and all of that is true. His prints are amazing when you see them firsthand. When you look at them online, when you look at them in magazines, most reproductions doesn’t do them justice. To me, what really sets Karsh apart is the amount of preparation and work that he did when he was photographing his famous subjects because he maintained a commercial practice for years.

    I remember seeing an ad for Karsh of Ottawa in the 1980s in a magazine when I was in school in Halifax. You could phone up and book an appointment and you could have your picture taken by Karsh; you didn’t have to be famous. He maintained that practice for decades, but then he went after people he wanted to photograph, his celebrities—in his words—in search of greatness, portraits of greatness, those sorts of things. The research he would do is exhaustive and the thing to remember about portrait photography in general, not just Karsh, is that it’s essentially a social act.

    JO: Yes.

    RE: Right. The best portrait photographers are the people who are good with people. This is something that Karsh learned early on, in particular from John Garo, who was another Armenian who had come from the States in Boston. Karsh had gone to work with him when he was a young man and Karsh learned the importance of being learned, professional, and a good conversationalist. To that end, he would spend—I was reviewing my notes before I came here and one of the things we talked about in the exhibition, one of the case studies we did, was for Anna Magnani, an Italian film actress. The paper trail of his correspondence before and after he actually shot the photograph is a good solid two years.

    JO: Really.

    RE: Where he is asking people, what sort of questions should I ask? Is this someone I should photograph? Then questions would come back and then he would send questions to editors—I mean this was in preparation for a book as well, so I mean it was a large process. But he did this kind of research and he wanted to be able to talk to people about things that would make them comfortable.

    JO: And the things that matter to them.

    RE: And the things that matter to them.

    JO: Huh, interesting. So is this a mythology that surrounds Karsh? Is this part of the mythology?

    RE: Well, I mean the great thing about Karsh is when you go into his papers you’ll see that from a very early time he had a sense, a sense that he wanted to be somebody. There is a famous exchange between him and his first wife Solange Gauthier. She had asked Karsh, “Do you want to be rich or famous?”—and he said famous. I think he had a sense of what he was going to do and he saved the most insignificant pieces of paper you could imagine from very early on.

    JO: So he kept his archives?

    RE: He kept his archives, yeah. Sometimes they weren’t terribly well organized, but he kept so many pieces of paper and so many drafts. I mean he had a sense that he was building something. In terms of mythology Karsh did two things, he sort of re-enforced our sense of who these important people were, the Churchill portrait being the greatest example—we’ll come back to that—but at the same time, sort of through association of his own work, he sort of leveraged that into his own mythology. You know, I am the photographer who photographs and corresponds with and socializes with these great people.

    JO: I think this is what led a lot of high profile people to want to be photographed by him, right? It’s sort of amplified.

    RE: Well, I mean it sounds negative, but I mean it was a symbiotic relationship at a certain point. Like after Karsh became established—so I mean in the 1950s, 10 years after his Churchill portrait, and while he was working on Portraits of Greatness—to be photographed by Karsh, to be “Karshed” as the verb goes, was also a marker of accomplishment for yourself.

    JO: What qualities are present in the photos that he takes, or that he took that make them sort of easily identifiable as a Karsh, you know?

    RE: Well, I mean there is a stereotypical look for some of his portraits. They usually had dramatic lighting and I think you could look to a Baroque painting as the influence for that. He was encouraged by John Garo in Boston to basically go to the Boston Public Library, and go to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and to educate himself about painting, about the past, about visual arts and about sculpture and about light.

    I think you see a certain interest in Rembrandt and those painters where figures sort of emerge from a darkness—high contrast, a highlight on the hair, on the edge of the face, that sort of thing. That is typical of many of Karsh’s photos, but at the same time he constantly broke his own rules. Print quality is an indicator—when you see a real exhibition quality print, it’s really like no other. And I think Karsh was good at often capturing people as if they were alone with their thoughts; some people might say it’s a moment of revelation, however you want to talk about it. I mean that’s sort of one of the more modern functions of portraitures since the romantic period, this idea of the psychological portrait that can reveal.

    JO: That can reveal the soul.

    RE: Reveal the soul, reveal the inner workings. You know it has its roots in physiognomy and other sorts of late 18th century practices. But it brings up all kinds of questions about whether that’s possible, is there that sort of essential thing to reveal. I think the point is that through conversation, and through his research, and through being prepared, and through being a good host—if you will—during the sessions, he was able to put people at ease. He was able to often bring out a sort of natural look on their face.

    At the same time he did say that he didn’t enjoy photographing actors because they were very used to putting on a face, to presenting different faces to a public, to an audience, and that’s very much what portrait photography is anyway. I mean we all do that. If you were to take my picture now I would think, how do I want to be presented? How do I want to look? I know there is a blemish on my right side, I’ll present my left side, just small things like that. Let alone trying to come up with a face that represents my psychological truth.

    I think he does that well and this is sort of outside of the image, that what I find fascinating about Karsh are the stories and the text that goes with the pictures. I think that those stories really enliven and animate the photos, so as a practice, as a project, that Karsh did through his books and his publications. I think that’s what was unique about him, that really was more about the photographs despite the mastery he had of light, despite the mastery he had in the darkroom, despite his social skills, it really was about more than the photos.

    JO: Where did Karsh learn and develop the techniques he used in photography?

    RE: Well, he started with his uncle in Sherbrooke in the 1920s, George Nakash, and he learned some basic techniques there. His uncle was a commercial photographer, influenced by pictorialism, which was an art movement of the late 19th, early 20th century that became what we call the club style for photo clubs in the early 20th century—it’s what everybody did. It was this attempt to give photography the markings of art, to make it less mechanical, to make it seem more interpretative, if you will.

    Then he went to work with John Garo in Boston. Garo was, I think even for then at least in the art history narrative that we use today, John Garo was a bit old fashioned in the mid-late 1920s. He adhered to pictorialism quite strongly, which would often mean soft focus, the use of alternative materials, which would mean maybe even hand work on the print to make it look like a hand crafted image and he only shot using available light. Which of course is one of the things that Karsh learned himself, I mean he used available light himself, but it’s when he came to Ottawa and started to hang out with people at the Ottawa Little Theatre through various connections, he made connections there too that were also important socially through the Governor General of the time, Lord Bessborough.

    Also, importantly for his photographic technique is that he seemed to absorb that it’s not the importance of isolating with light, because I think he would have learned that from the Baroque paintings, but how to produce that at will, how to take artificial lights and create that sense of what in an extreme would be called tenebrism and I think this is what he learned from his Ottawa theatre experience.

    JO: Yes, a lot of lighting is often very theatrical.

    RE: Very theatrical, but at the same time he also did a number of high-key lightings, especially of women. I mean if you look at Princess of Monaco…uh…

    JO: Grace.

    RE: Grace. Princess Grace. (laughs) You know you look at her portraits or Audrey Hepburn or even his final portrait of the Clintons, these all tend to be very high key, flat, with very subtle modelling, which are not really that theatrical. He had a wide range of techniques that he would use, but if you’re talking about the stereotypical Karsh photo, like if I had to say “That’s a Karsh photo,” I would think of that dramatic lighting influenced by perhaps theatre spots.

    The other thing that he probably took away from his time in theatre is he developed a real sense of what looked good to an audience. So he would watch a play and he would mark the spots that he thought were both theatrical and photographic. Where the theatre and a photograph could come together. I mean there is no doubt that he continued to have that sense of theatre and performance, not in the sort of extreme way that say maybe a Leibovitz would have today or in the ‘70s or ‘80s, but in a much more subtle way and a much more naturalistic way as well.

    JO: What roles did his family and friends play in his career?

    RE: Well, Karsh relied heavily on other people to get his work, to make his appointments, to organize travel, to do everything. The two people who probably helped him the most once he established his own practice after the influences and support of his uncle George Nakash and John Boro would undoubtedly be his wives, Solange and Estrellita—both of whom were part domestic partners and part business partner.

    You know, from the early days when Solange helped build props and sets in his studio and then later once Karsh’s practice became a going concern, it was often Solange’s job to take notes during the sitting, correspond with people on his behalf and Estrellita performed much the same function. I think that each of them gave the support that he needed, they complemented him perfectly for the different parts of his career.

    Then there was his staff and it’s interesting. In Maria Tippett’s book, which came out around the centenary of Karsh’s birth—it’s not exactly a hagiography—she’s a bit critical at times of Karsh and she seems to reserve a certain amount of criticism for the way he treated his staff. Having said that, most of them stayed with him for decades so it couldn’t have been horrible and he relied heavily on them. He sent them notes; he wasn’t by most accounts the most demonstrative person with his employees. He wasn’t good at saying thank you, but he did rely very heavily on them. He relied on Ignas Gabalis to print for him for the last decades. I think he printed for him for 30 years at least, and indeed some would say he was a better printer than Karsh. That Karsh was too impatient, which of course just sort of adds to this idea of Karsh being the mercurial genius right? Doesn’t have time for this, got to get it done, whereas Ignas would be in the darkroom slaving away making these perfect prints.

    You would see if you go through the collection at LAC; you’ll see prints where Karsh has put his notes on with pencil saying darken, lighten, fix this, do this. This is a normal interaction and it’s not unusual for photographers to have someone else print their stuff. We sort of have this notion of a romantic artist doing everything him- or herself, but I mean in reality Cartier-Bresson didn’t print his own stuff, Avedon didn’t print his own stuff; these big name photographers generally don’t print their own stuff. They have a printer and that printer is important to them and helps to determine their look and they work together.

    JO: Hi Jill.

    Jill Delaney: Hi Jessica.

    JO: Thank you for being with us today.

    JD: Thank you for asking me.

    JO: Let’s just dive right in. How did Yousuf Karsh’s work end up at LAC?

    JD: It’s a longish story, which I will keep short, but it’s only longish in the sense that when an archives acquires a big collection like this, a big fonds, it doesn’t happen instantaneously. The collection came really in two big parts, one in 1987 and one in 1997. The one for 1987 was most of the photographs that he took between when he opened his studio in 1932 and then 1987. But that acquisition took years and years to sort out and the relationship between Karsh and what was then the Public Archives of Canada really started in the ‘70s.

    JO: I was just going to say it was probably a long conversation about donating his work to LAC.

    JD: Yeah, I don’t think he needed a lot of convincing. On one hand he was always very patriotic, he loved that he was a Canadian and he always felt very strongly about maintaining his studio in Ottawa. Proudly always saying that he was a Canadian, so he wanted his work to come to a Canadian institution, but in the ‘80s when they were first sort of talking about doing something with the collection there were a lot of American institutions and European institutions you could have imagined would have been interested in the collection as well.

    The relationship sort of started in the mid-‘70s and you can see that actually in the collections, there is a series of small acquisitions of small groups of prints that were made in the ‘70s and the early ‘80s that kind of tested the waters and showed goodwill between the two parties. Then there was a lot of negotiation, which resulted in the first acquisition in the 1980s. The acquisition that happened in the 1990s was all of the photographs from 1987 to 1992 when the studio was closed, but almost more importantly all of the business records from the studio.

    JO: So right from the beginning basically.

    JD: So right from the beginning. There are a few records, not much, from the ‘30s, but starting in the ‘40s there is a lot more—60 meters, 60 linear meters.

    JO: Of paper?

    JD: Of paper. So the textual records are in fact really fascinating, there is a lot of fantastic correspondence.

    JO: Well, actually we’re sort of delving into this, so when you look at his holdings, what is included all together?

    JD: So all together, I think we’ve roughly estimated 353,000 photographic items. That’s all the negatives, all the prints that came in which include glass plate negatives, which he started with in the ‘30s, used up until the early ‘40s and then he switched to film, to safety film, so all of that. He started using colour at a certain point, so colour transparencies, colour separations, colour prints and then all of the black and white prints, proofs, working copies, red proofs, glossies, exhibition prints, what he calls “TV” prints, which are these large prints that were laminated onto boards, not very archival, but were used in the background for television interviews, that sort of thing. So it really is a huge amount of photographic material.

    JO: So that’s the photographic material and then there is the 60 meters of paper.

    JD: Yeah, there is the 60 meters of textual records. There is a little bit of artwork, there are his awards, you know he won a lot of awards. There is a good audiovisual component because he was interviewed many times over the years by different radio programs, television programs. There was a documentary film done by Harry Rasky at one point, so there is all of that material as well.

    JO: Is any of his work available online?

    JD: Yes, there is lots of his material that is available online. We started a project a few years ago to digitize some of his earliest negatives and so some of those glass plate negatives have been digitized, but also a lot of the early nitrate because not for very long, but he did shoot nitrate for a few years. So a lot of that has been done for preservation reasons. When you go online and you look at those, there is about 2,800 of those maybe that have been digitized, you can see them both in the original negative form and then we’ve converted that to a positive image as well so you can see that. It’s quite interesting because you can see some of his really early work.

    JO: Can his fonds be consulted in person?

    JD: Yeah, absolutely. The photographic material is all open. There is no restrictions on access except for the glass plate negatives and some of the exhibition prints would have to be consulted with an archivist present at our preservation facility because of the fragility of those, but it is open. The textual records—some is open, and some is not—so permission would have to come from the estate in order to access those.

    JO: Can you tell us the story about the famous Winston Churchill photo?

    RE: Sure. It’s a story that is well known and it’s a story that—and I’ll come back to this—had its inception almost immediately. It’s a story that travelled with the photo when it was first published. The story is that Churchill was in North America just shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor and so the Americans were entering the war, but Churchill was here to drum up support for the war cause in Europe, especially because the United Kingdom was more or less isolated at this point; most of continental Europe had fallen.

    So Churchill had addressed a joint session in the United States and then he came to Canada and he addressed a joint session here in Ottawa of the Senate in the House. Afterwards, actually to back up a little bit, Karsh has learned that Churchill was coming and by this time Karsh was a known quantity—he had made connections through the Office of the Governor General and William Lyon Mackenzie King. So he was known and had connections at the highest level of Canadian government and he used those connections to secure a chance to photograph as he said, “The Great Man,” Churchill, when he was here.

    After Churchill finished his speech he left the assembly. He was walking through the Speaker’s chamber where Karsh had set up lights and was waiting for him. As the story goes, Churchill walks in and he says, “What’s this? I didn’t know about this.” And of course nobody had told Churchill, none of his aids had told Churchill that this Canadian photographer was going to be waiting for him and was going to take pictures of him after the speech.

    Churchill was not impressed. Anyway, he lit a cigar and then Karsh sort of talked to him and maybe pleaded with him to say, you know, on occasions as momentous as this, you know surely we should have a photograph to record it for posterity. Churchill says well, you know, take a photo and be quick about it and Karsh says basically—the cigar, may I remove the cigar? It’s not appropriate for a solemn occasion such as this and he reaches over and plucks the cigar from Churchill’s mouth and apparently he even had an ashtray waiting for him, I mean he knew Churchill. It is at this moment that Churchill scowls, scowls and puts his hands on his hips and you know he just looks terrifying and that’s when Karsh takes the photo.

    What’s important is that at this point of course this is where the name of the photo comes from, The Lion or The Roaring Lion, because Churchill says, “Mr. Karsh you can make a roaring lion stop in his tracks,” or something to that effect and he consents to have a second photo taken.

    The second photo is very different, and apparently the second photo was Churchill’s family’s favourite. It shows basically a kindly, elderly gentlemen, big smile on his face, very approachable, very nice. It’s interesting to think, I mean Karsh recognized he had the two frames, and he recognized that scowling Churchill was the photo. It was the photo that he had to send out and he was going to send it to Saturday Night magazine. So he was working on the print and it was published first in Saturday Night magazine in January ‘42.

    Actually before he even sent the print to them, his wife Solange wrote a letter to the editor of Saturday Night, Sandwell I think, and this is where she tells the story. There is a typewritten copy of it here at Library and Archives, where she says basically he’s tired and he’s working, meaning Karsh, but I have forced him to tell me the story. This is the story in his words without any alterations or additions, and she tells the story. She writes it, and she sends it off to the editor, and it’s not often that you can point to the beginning of a story.

    JO: Yeah, yeah, the source.

    RE: But this is the beginning of the story, this is the story of the meeting of Karsh and Churchill and the creation of The Lion. That photograph, I mean it was on the strength of that photograph, that Karsh then arranged to do a tour of the United Kingdom during wartime photographing the war leaders, the civic leaders, and the women of letters, and it was really on the strength of that.

    Before that, Karsh had done a lot of different types of photography; he basically photographed anything anybody needed, he did passport photos, he did wedding photos, he did photos of debutants, he photographed parties, he photographed theatre, he did his own sort of artistic practice that he would submit to salons, he did everything, but he had positioned himself very well in Ottawa.

    He had nurtured his connections and through that when he got “the photo” he realized he needed to do something with it and he sent it. He sent it to the Prime Minister; he sent it to Churchill; he sent it to FDR in the States, to Roosevelt; he sent it everywhere it needed to be sent and it had his name on it. Then it started to appear in the mass media, so it appears in Saturday Night and then it appears in the Illustrated London News and then it appears about the same time in Life magazine, not on the cover as we often think of it, but actually inside. It didn’t appear on the cover until there was a retrospective on Churchill.

    From that mass exposure, Karsh starts receiving letters from everyone. You know they want copies of the photo, please tell me how much it is, can I get a 16x20, can I get 10 of them, can I get…and everybody wants a copy of the photo. That photograph really is—it is the watershed moment in Karsh’s career. I mean he does some really fine and interesting work after that and I think some better work, but that is the photo that launches his career.

    JO: Right.

    RE: Absolutely.

    JO: So I was actually going to ask you if he did other types of photography other than portraits, but did he continue to do other photography after?

    RE: Yeah, he did. He focused, at least his public profile after the Churchill photograph, he certainly focused on portraiture. I mean why wouldn’t you, right?

    JO: Yes.

    RE: (laughs)

    JO: This is your calling card.

    RE: Yes, that’s right. It’s like I took that great photo of Churchill, but I think I’m going to do still life now. So yeah, he focused on portraiture and he focused on that type of portraiture at least as a public practice.

    Then things kind of run their course a bit, say in the 1950s, and he starts having more difficulty accessing some people like, he’s turned down by Queen Elizabeth, he’s turned down by certain people who are just like “not today Mr. Karsh.” He starts to look more at the cultural icons and photographing them and some people did refuse him, but not many, but some did.

    Then there is a period in the late ‘50s and the early ‘60s where he really is doing everything. He does a series for MacLean’s magazine that is later turned into a book called See Canada, where he travels from Newfoundland to British Columbia photographing people and places along the way. When you look at those photographs, you realize that Karsh’s strength, Karsh’s signature was really in his portraiture because while he did have an amazing eye, there is a fantastic photo from the Calgary stampede that just sort of defies any sort of compositional logic. It’s just an amazing chaotic photo, but it’s a wonderful photo.

    There are other photographs too of countrysides, of farmers, of street urchins in St. John, New Brunswick with dirt on their faces, it’s a whole range of things, so he does that. He also does movie stills for a while, for a couple of films, Sodom and Gomorrah, Zulu, which I think was one of Michael Caine’s first movies and most notably, Planet of the Apes.

    JO: Oh really.

    RE: So there are photographs that Karsh took of the actors’ head and shoulders like publicity shots, you know—Roddy McDowalland those people with the Karsh lighting, with you know, the dramatic lighting. Then there are photographs of them in costume with the same lighting, which is a bit of shock when you see them. I don’t know if they were used for anything, but he certainly did that. He did film still photography for a while, he did that kind of more journalistic practice, but it was journalistic practice on Karsh’s terms. He wasn’t like a wire photographer out there taking photos hoping to get something picked up by a newspaper or something. He was basically paid.

    JO: Commissioned.

    RE: He was commissioned. He went to these places and he did these things.

    JO: Do you have a favourite Karsh photo you’ve come across while working with his collection?

    JD: I think I figured out fairly early on working with his collection, which one was my favourite and it’s Georgia O'Keeffe. It’s a really skillful, beautiful photograph, which sort of epitomizes everything that Karsh was trying to do with his portraits in a lot of ways. There is a lot of texture in that photograph because he shot her in her house.

    At that point it was 1957, so he was at the height of his career as well. He went to do that portrait at her adobe house in New Mexico and he has her sitting on a bench with this piece of gnarled wood beside her and the wall behind is an adobe wall. On the other side, there is a door that is just ajar to the outside and so there is this kind of bright raking light that comes in across the back wall as well, and just the texture of that wall just pops out. Georgia O'Keeffe is sort of sitting in profile and you see her hands, and she’s an older woman at that point, but it just brings out that sort of relationship between her as a mature artist and the environment that she was living in so beautifully. She comes across a really strong women; she’s a bit withdrawn in the photograph, but you get the impression that this is a strong women.

    JO: Do you have a favourite Karsh story you’ve come across in your research?

    RE: Well, the thing about Karsh stories is that I think most Karsh stories unfortunately start with Karsh, so it’s hard to find a new Karsh story. His autobiography, In Search of Greatness, is basically just one Karsh story after another. Karsh was often approached for commercial work, and you know, people were always trying to get him to do things. In part, if you could get Karsh to do your photograph, and unlike most photographers you would want to put Karsh’s name on your ad, right? It’s like we had Karsh do this and you would sort of by association be sort of a sign of quality, accomplishment.

    JO: Cachet?

    RE: Or cachet, that’s right. Anyway, Karsh was approached by A&W, they wanted Karsh to photograph the A&W root beer. The letter from the ad firm was just wonderfully effusive, you know they were trying to spin it to be so much fun. It’s like, “Wouldn’t this be fun you know, two great icons together, Karsh and the A&W root beer.” Anyway, it didn’t happen (laughs) and Karsh just wrote—because he didn’t do his own correspondence, right, I mean it was Joyce Large or whoever would do that for him—but he just wrote an annotation in the margin of the note that says “I don’t think so” (laughs). Then he was going to leave it up to someone else more skillful with words to kindly decline the offer.

    JO: I don’t think so (laughs). It’s very succinct. You’ve touched upon a few resources like the autobiography and the various biographies that people have written about Karsh, do you have any resources you would recommend for people who want to explore Karsh and his photography?

    RE: Well, I think for learning about Karsh as the person, as the photographer, the two that I mentioned—Karsh’s own, In Search of Greatness, which you have to understand is an autobiography and shows Karsh in absolutely the best light, but you sort of realize that he knows he’s living a charmed existence and perhaps you’ll let him get away with that in the text.

    Then the other one is Maria Tippett’s Portrait in Light and Shadow, which she had the cooperation of Karsh’s widow Estrellita, and the cooperation of many people who worked for Karsh, and it really is a well-researched and very detailed book. It really tells the story of Karsh’s life, and she also weaves through it some broader context like about what was happening in photography at the time and how Karsh’s star sort of rose and fell within the world of photography. You know there was a great turn in the late ‘60s in photography and art in general where Karsh’s work was just seen in general as completely outdated, completely old fashioned, but even Karsh recognized people still wanted it, so he did fine.

    In addition to those, really if you want to look at Karsh’s work itself, I think his second book of portraits, Portraits of Greatness, really is the publication to go to see the best of Karsh’s work. He continues to update it over the years, continues to add new versions of it, adding new photographs, taking photographs out as he sees people’s importance. So you know in a later version of it, it’s no longer called Portraits of Greatness, it’s called Karsh Portfolio and then it becomes Karsh Portraits and then there are retrospective editions, but they have the same sort of—they all have Churchill, you know, they all have certain early important photographs, then other people come and go. So in the ‘60s or the ‘70s Joan Baez comes in and somebody who isn’t perhaps relevant anymore gets dropped out, but there is always collections of portraits.

    That one I think is really important—even more important than his initial first publication—that was Faces of Destiny, which was based on his wartime trip to Britain. Because I think in his second book he had—well I mean it was really a purpose-filled book—you know he had an author to help him with the text, write the text. It was based on extensive notes and I mean it really was a summative work for him.

    Then outside of that there are a couple of good exhibition catalogues that also look at his output in a broader way, so that first of those was the art of the portrait, Karsh: The Art of the Portrait, which was an exhibition held here in Ottawa at the National Gallery, I think around 1989 and it includes some works that aren’t portraits. But then that’s sort of the Karsh canon, if you will, that’s greatly expanded by Heroes of Light and Shadow, which was an exhibition in Germany, then the book gets published in Canada. It includes a lot of people from the library and archives community who wrote essays for it, people who know and have worked with the collection for years. Those two books I think really give a good broad overview, especially Heroes of Light and Shadow. It talks about the See Canada photos, the film work; it also talks about the industrial photographs that we haven’t talked about that he did for Atlas Steels, Ford.

    And there is an exhibition catalogue from the Art Gallery of Windsor; of course Windsor being an industrial city, they did a whole exhibition of Karsh’s industrial photographs. That was also around that same period he is taking film stills and really sort of expanding his scope of work. Again his industrial photographs are not what you would think of as industrial photographs. He does these beautiful lit portraits and then he takes environmental photographs of the work areas and then he brings them into the darkroom and he does an unbelievable—and his darkroom technicians as well—an unbelievable job of creating this. It’s not seamless, it’s almost hyper-realistic. The people pop out of the photo, but yet the environment is naturalistic. It’s just the most amazing photograph you’ve ever seen, these sort of heroically lit workers.

    And then of course there are great stories about Karsh working on the production floor at the steel plant. Showing up, you know, in his expensive Italian suit and Solange running around taking notes and helping him out wearing one of her best dresses, because the two of them were always dressed to the nines. His assistant apparently has to hold up shields to keep sparks from flying on the camera, and it really was an unusual environment for Karsh to work in. It was certainly outside—I mean you think as a man who has been travelling through Europe and the United States photographing the most famous of the famous. He’d been working in—actually he would usually work in somebody’s home, he would work in a third location, maybe a church or whatever location he could find that could accommodate the lights and could accommodate the set up. This was entirely different; he had to adapt to what he was presented with and then he created these wonderfully hyper-realistic photographs. It’s the kind of thing you would imagine you could do today in Photoshop; it kind of looks like the trick people now do with Photoshop called tilt-shift…

    JO: Yes.

    RE: …photographs, but there is a very thin line of sharp delineation and then everything else looks like it’s from a different world. This is what Karsh has done, though the appearance of these men in these environments seems entirely plausible, but yet there is something that is not quite right.

    They are masterful, just absolutely masterful darkroom creations. It actually points to his reliance on technical skill. Karsh would talk about—as I talked about earlier about the portraiture being a social action—Karsh would talk about when you would say, “How did you make that portrait? How did you make that picture?” He wouldn’t talk about f-stops and lighting and that sort of thing that you would see in popular photo magazines. When you think even today, when you go on Flickr and they record the metadata from the camera, it’s like this was taken from a Canon this and an f-whatever, blah, blah, blah. It’s like well that doesn’t really tell me much about how the photo was taken, but at the same time the technical skill that Karsh was able to bring to the photos was unbelievable—was really unbelievable—especially for an analogue process like that. Where sometimes skill wasn’t enough, sometime you needed luck to make thing match, to make things right.

    JO: Thank you very much for being with us here today.

    RE: Oh, you are very welcome, my pleasure.

    JO: To learn more about Yousuf Karsh and Library and Archives Canada’s photographic collection, please visit us online at On our home page, select “Discover the Collection,” then click on “Browse by Topic” and select “Photography.” On this page, you will find links to multiple online resources about Yousuf Karsh and photography, including our Portrait Portal.

    Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Jessica Ouvrard, and you’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada”—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you. A special thanks to our guests today, Dr. Robert Evans and Jill Delaney.

    For more information about our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at


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Related links

Karsh masterworks - a tribute
Photography of Yousuf Karsh Flickr Album
Photography – The Discover Blog
Portrait Portal

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