The first image that comes to mind when people think of Winston Churchill is of the leader scowling, his hand on his hip. It was taken by photographer Yousuf Karsh. Some of the greatest photographs of our time were taken by the Armenian refugee who fled to North America and rose to international fame.
"[The Churchill portrait] was the international breakthrough of his career," says Karsh's 88-year-old widow and Antioch College alumna, Estrellita Karsh, on the phone from Boston.
It is now one of the most widely reproduced photographs in the world. But when Karsh took that portrait, he was a displaced 32-year-old photographer living in Ottawa.
"My husband was in the Armenian massacres," says Estrellita Karsh. "He had no childhood. They had to leave their house, open the door, and walk out. And that was it. That’s how they left. Along the way his sister died of starvation. His mother, she gave him a tin cup and a tin spoon, and she said: ‘Don’t let anybody eat from this. This is all I can do for you, my son.’"
It was enough. Karsh arrived in Canada in 1925 where he lived with his photographer uncle, George Nakash, who inspired him to take photos. On December 30, 1941, age 32, his life was forever changed when Winston Churchill visited Ottawa.
“This was during 1941. The most terrible time of the war. Britain was on the verge of giving up. The Nazis were bombing the Hell out of England. London was in tatters. One of the little Nazi prime ministers said: ‘Oh, we will ring the neck of England like a chicken.’ And Churchill gets up and addresses the two houses of Parliament in Canada, and says: 'Some chicken. Some neck.' Churchill gives this ringing speech, and everybody is very high, and he walks triumphantly to the Speakers Chamber. He does not know that he’s going to be photographed. Nobody has told him. And Yousuf’s been getting ready for hours, checking his camera.”
At this point, Churchill was quite upset. No one told him he was going to be photographed. They gave him some brandy, a cigar, and he finally cooperated.
“And he says to him: ‘You may take one.’ One. So Churchill’s standing there, and he’s puffing away at his cigar. Puff, puff. So Yousuf takes an ashtray, and he prefers it, and Churchill would not hear of it. He just hung on to that cigar like dear life. And he says: ‘Go ahead, go ahead take the picture.’ And Yousuf didn’t say anything. He got everything ready. And he reached out, and he snatched the cigar from his lips, and said: ‘Forgive me sir.’ And that was the picture,” says Estrellita Karsh.
Karsh’s career exploded. He went on to photograph Helen Keller, Martin Luther King Jr., Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Grace Kelly, Jackie Robinson, Ingrid Bergman, Ernest Hemingway, Muhammad Ali, Jackie Onassis. And Thomas Watson—who applied the trademark business methods he learned at National Cash Register to transform Dayton Computing Scale Company into IBM. These images, alongside numerous others, are currently at the Dayton Art Institute. There are also two Karsh portraits of Charles Kettering on display at Antioch College. They showcase Karsh’s unique gift of humanizing celebrities.
“Yes, he was very technically brilliant, I mean, obviously, but what his subjects wanted to give him, was themselves,” says Estrellita Karsh.
And give of themselves they did. For a brief moment some of the world’s most famous people let down their guards, and allowed an Armenian refugee, a man who escaped unthinkable bloodshed and terror, to illuminate their true character.
“Where it would have been fine for him to sit on the analyst’s couch and bemoan everything. He didn’t.”
Rather than letting the horror of his past limit him, it seems Yousuf Karsh used it for good, as a means to channel a sort of grace toward people. To make them feel like, sure, they were “great.” But in the grand scheme of things, that didn’t really matter. They didn’t have to be. All they had to be was themselves.
The Yousuf Karsh Exhibition is called American Portraits and it’s at the Dayton Art Institute until September 16.