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Lights! Camera! Personality! Karsh of Ottawa Collection

“To record the human spirit,
human soul”

Landscape, 1926. One of the earliest photographs taken by Karsh, this image won the $50 grand prize at a T. Eaton Company competition in 1926. (Courtesy J. Fielder)

Yousuf Karsh was born in Mardin, Turkey, on 23 December 1908, to Armenian parents. The family left Turkey in 1922, and two years later, on New Year’s Eve 1924, Karsh arrived in Canada. Karsh began his study of photography at the studio of his uncle George Nakash in Sherbrooke, Quebec. There he learned to take, develop, and enlarge his first images, snapped with an inexpensive Brownie camera. One of Karsh’s landscapes won the grand prize of $50 at a local competition run by the T. Eaton Company. Nakash recognized potential in his nephew and in 1928 arranged an apprenticeship for Karsh with a Boston photographer and fellow Armenian, John Garo. At this point in his career, Garo was known well enough to attract the aristocracy of Boston and international personages to his studio. He not only photographed the powerful and influential, but also developed close friendships with many of his important clients.

John H. Garo, 1930, by Karsh (Courtesy J. Fielder)
Karsh was deeply affected by Garo’s art and his personality. Like his mentor, Karsh chose to learn the art of portraiture and become a photographer of the “giants of the earth.”2 To improve his skills, Garo encouraged the young apprentice to study great masters—Rembrandt, Rubens, and Velasquez. Karsh enrolled in art classes, but since he did not exhibit any abilities as a painter, his teacher often asked him to help with supplies and set-up. Arranging still lifes and draping models, Karsh learned more than to draw; he became aware of shades, contrasts, and the lighting that shaped the subjects.
A set of brushes given to Karsh by John Garo (CSTM 1999.0361)
At the end of his apprenticeship, Garo gave Karsh a set of brushes (1999.0361)* dating from 1890, which Garo had used to apply gum Arabic and bromoil to his prints. For the rest of his career Karsh kept the brushes locked in a safe and did not allow anyone else to use them. It was difficult for Karsh to part with this particular treasure, and the brushes were among the last objects that he passed on to the Museum.

In 1930 Karsh returned to Sherbrooke to work with his uncle, but after two years at Nakash’s studio, decided to move to Ottawa. The nation’s capital was home to many influential people, whom Karsh wanted to photograph. In 1933 he opened his own studio at 130 Sparks Street. The same year, at the theatre of the Ottawa Drama League (later the Ottawa Little Theatre), Karsh took the first photographs that gave him recognition. He submitted them to Toronto’s Saturday Night magazine, and insisted on a credit: “Karsh, Ottawa.”

On 6 January 1934, Toronto’s Saturday Night magazine printed photographs taken by Karsh in December 1933 at the Ottawa Drama League’s production of Romeo and Juliet. The images were signed “Karsh, Ottawa.” The Earl of Bessborough, who starred as Romeo, arranged for Karsh to meet his father Lord Bessborough, the first Governor General of Canada photographed by Karsh.
Lord and Lady Bessborough, 1933; the Governor General of Canada, Lord Bessborough, and his wife were the first important personalities photographed by Karsh. Their image was published in a double-page spread in the Illustrated London News. (Courtesy J. Fielder)

Before he took the famous image of Churchill in December 1941, which opened the door to an exceptional career, Karsh spent almost a decade setting the stage for his art. He established his name as a skilled photographer, and became acquainted with important personalities, artists, publishers, and politicians. And most of all, he developed his own style characterized by masterful lighting, almost exclusive use of studio equipment, and careful development and retouching, all of which allowed him to achieve the goal that he set for himself while under Garo’s tutelage: “to portray, to interpret, to record the human spirit, human soul.”3

* The numbers in parentheses are the accession numbers of artifacts held by the Museum.

2 Yousuf Karsh, Faces of Destiny (New York: Ziff-Davis, 1946), 7.
3 Karsh: The Searching Eye (Toronto: CBC, 1986).