"if a viewer understands the person through my portrait, then I have succeeded." - Yousuf Karsh

Review by Adrienne White


Yousuf Karsh was born December 23rd 1908 in the city of Mardin in the Ottoman Empire. At the age of 16, his parents sent him to his uncles home in Quebec to study as a physician. While there he assisted his uncle, George Nakashian, in his photography studio, and developed a taste for the art. Seeing potential in his nephew, Nakashian arranged an apprentice for Karsh with John Garo of Boston, USA in 1928. With Garo's Boston aristocratic clientèle, young Yousuf honed his technical skills essential to maintaining clients of such social status. In 1932, Karsh returned to Canada where he set up a portrait studio, and was influenced by the style of theater photography that would become a staple of his unique style.

In 1941, Karsh photographed Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain. This photograph would make him famous as “Karsh of Ottawa”, and the portrait became one of the most reproduced in the history of photography:

Churchill lit a fresh cigar, puffed at it with a mischievous air, and then magnanimously relented. “You may take one.” Churchill’s cigar was ever present. I held out an ashtray, but he would not dispose of it. I went back to my camera and made sure that everything was all right technically. I waited; he continued to chomp vigorously at his cigar. I waited. Then I stepped toward him and, without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, “Forgive me, sir,” and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.[[#sdendnote1sym|i]]

In 1987, the National Gallery of Canada purchased a large collection of 50, 000 original prints, 12 000 color transparencies, and 250 000 negatives for $3.5 million. He was the first portrait artist to be featured in a one-man exhibition at the National Gallery in Ottawa, and was made a Companion in the Order of Canada in 1990.

Karsh passed away July 13th 2002 at the age of 93 due to complications following surgery in Boston. He was interred to the Notre Dame Cemetery in Ottawa. During his lifetime he photographed more than half of the 100 people regarded as the most influential persons of the 20th century as regarded by the International Who's Who list. Karsh himself was included on that list, the only portrait artist included .

Grey Owl is a 1936 portrait of a man whose birth name was Archibald Belaney. Grey Owl was a Canadian naturalist and author who achieved international recognition for his articles and more than half a dozen books that promoted the conservation of nature and environment. He was born in England on the 18th of September 1888, but immigrated to Canada at the age of 17 to become a trapper. Over the years, he changed his persona and fabricated a heritage to become a First Nation's man by the name of “Grey Owl”. His works on Canada's environment conservation efforts were so influential that despite knowing he was not of their heritage, the First Nation people did not exploit him or expose him publicly. Grey Owl died at the age of 49, two years after Karsh had taken his portrait, due to pneumonia. Only after his death did the public discover the secret of his true heritage, and the hoax that he had concocted.

His death allowed the press – who had kept his secret during his life, fearing the truth might detract from the numerous good works he was achieving as a 'native' [[#sdendnote2sym|ii]] – to reveal the truth, setting off an international backlash. While there was certainly a lot of controversy about the heritage of Grey Owl, the Canadian response wasn't all negative, as seen by The Ottawa Citizen which said; “Of course, the value of his work is not jeopardized. His attainments as a writer and naturalist will survive”.


Canada was just starting to recover from the Great Depression when Karsh agreed to photograph Grey Owl. Returning soldiers from WWI found it difficult to secure jobs, and the unemployment rate was not improving. Prime Minister R. B. Bennett – who took office during the Great Depression – initiated military style run relief camps throughout the country where unemployed single men would toil away for $0.25 a day building roads and other public works. The relief camp workers frustrations led to political protests and resulted in the Regina Riots after a confrontation between an elected representative of the workers and Bennett. Canada was moving to modernize itself so that it could compete globally as an economic player while Grey Owl was on the opposite side of the spectrum working to preserve the natural state of Canadian lands.

The unsavory events of the Regina Riot and On-to-Ottawa Trek seemed to discredit the Bennett Conservative government, and in the 1935 federal elections, his office went from holding almost 140 seats to only 39. The relief camps were replaced by better seasonal relief camps, and the men were paid slightly more for their work.

Conservative Bennett was replaced by Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King – or “Rex” as referred to by some – who held the Prime Ministers office previously from 1921 until 1930. King was taken with Karsh, and introduced him to visiting people of interest and status to have their portraits taken. This connection in the political world lead not only to Karsh's portfolio expanding at an impressive rate, but would eventually lead to the sitting of Winston Churchill in the portrait that made him famous internationally.
In this new situation, instructions about lighting effects were given by the director; he could command the lighting to do what he wished. Moods could be created, selected, modified, intensified. I was thrilled by this means of expression...”
-Yousuf Karsh


Karsh's experience with theater photography opened him up to new possibilities. Where during his apprenticeship with Garo he relied mainly on natural light, the stage lighting of the theater gave him a certain edge that he did not have before. Manipulation of light and shadows created a light and dark contrast in his photography that creates a sense of importance and natural beauty . Karsh's depiction of Belaney as Grey Owl shows him off center in the frame; situated to the left side of the portrait and gazing off into the distance. The contrast of light in the photograph creates a darker shade to his skin, and lends him an almost contemplative sadness or thoughtful wisdom, as if his heart was heavy with the burdens of conservation and his duty to his “fellow natives”. Perhaps Karsh knew at the time of the photograph that Grey Owl was not of native heritage, but manipulated the pose and context of the sitting so that he would appear that way.

“Grey Owl” is a 50.1 x 40.2 cm gelatin silver print gift to the National Gallery of Canada. Originally an almost full sized portrait, it is now a Romantic facial representation. Contrasting the almost harsh contours of Grey Owl's face with manipulated lighting, and the soft edges and fabric of his hat and scarf, the portrait is simultaneously strikingly beautiful and haunting.