The internationally renowned Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh created an enduring legacy through his art. For 60 years he documented history by recording the influential people of his time. More than half of the one hundred figures listed by the International Who's Who as the most influential of the 20th century were photographed by Karsh. His name also appeared on the list, the only photographer to be included.
Yousuf Karsh was born in Mardin, Turkey, on December 23, 1908. His family, of Armenian descent, fled to Syria in 1922 to escape persecution. In 1924, Karsh arrived in Canada to live with his uncle George Nakash, a successful portrait photographer in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Although his uncle had a profound effect on his early years, it was Karsh's apprenticeship with John. H. Garo of Boston which introduced him to the world of the salon. The Boston aristocracy was Garo's clientele, and in his studio, Karsh honed both the technical and social skills essential to photographing famous people.
In 1932 Karsh moved to Ottawa where he first encountered theatre photography which became a defining influence on his style. He also developed contacts with a range of Ottawa's society, and with visiting dignitaries willing to be captured in his distinctive and dramatic portraits. As he became widely known in Canada, he was a natural choice to photograph the wartime visit by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the end of 1941. The resulting image immortalized Churchill's defiance and unconquerable stand against the enemy, and placed Karsh firmly in the international arena of photography.
Karsh's international career, during which he photographed some eleven thousand personalities from many walks of life, lasted until his retirement in 1992, when he closed his studio in the Chateau Laurier. At that time, Library and Archives of Canada brought the remaining material from Karsh's studio together with the substantial acquisition first made in 1987, assembling the complete Yousuf Karsh Fonds under one roof. In 1997 Yousuf Karsh and his wife Estrellita settled in Boston, Massachusetts, where on July 13, 2002, Yousuf Karsh died, having left a legacy to the world of some of the greatest and most beloved portraits of the 20th century.
The Karsh Collection
Between 1987 and 1998, Library and Archives of Canada acquired the outstanding Yousuf Karsh Collection of over 300,000 negatives, photographic prints and transparencies, representing the creative oeuvre of his 60-year career. In addition, the collection contains business papers from Karsh's Ottawa studio, philatelic projects, art work, personal correspondence, scrapbooks, awards and honours, and recorded interviews. The Yousuf Karsh Collection not only offers researchers a comprehensive view of the life and work of an internationally celebrated Canadian photographer, it also speaks to the long-standing special role of Library and Archives Canada in preserving major cultural archives and portraiture of national significance for all Canadians.
Most of the collection is housed at the Gatineau Preservation Centre, a state-of-the-art facility, with fragile early negative materials placed in cool off-site storage. All items are carefully arranged and optimally stored in customized acid-free archival containers, and the work of digitizing them for preservation and future reference purposes has begun. Karsh's cameras and studio equipment are preserved by the Canada Science and Technology Museum.
Works from the Karsh Collection have frequently been loaned for exhibition nationally and internationally, and are available for consultation and research at the Archives and online via the Web site.