Karsh was one of the most respected and acclaimed photographers of the century. Fascinated by "greatness", he aimed to capture the essential character of his sitters, instilling them with both charisma and dignity in his nearly 60-year career. A highlight of the exhibition is Karsh's iconic wartime portrait of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Taken in 1941, whilst Churchill was visiting Ottawa, the portrait was a career-defining break for Karsh. Churchill refused to discard his cigar but Karsh took the cigar out of the politician's mouth and managed to capture the glare of the world's most famous politician of the time. Published worldwide by newspapers and magazines, the photograph established Karsh's international reputation and was one of the most reproduced photographs in history
After the huge success of Karsh's Churchill portrait, high-profile commissions followed, many of which are included in this exhibition. On show will be Karsh's 1951 portrait of Princess Elizabeth; his portrait of Fidel Castro whilst Prime Minister of Cuba in 1971 a sitting fuelled by Cuban rum and Coke; Pablo Picasso in his ceramics gallery in 1954; actress Audrey Hepburn in Paramount Studios in 1956; playwright George Bernard-Shaw in 1943 when he was almost ninety; Grace Kelly in 1956 when she was newly engaged to the Prince of Monaco; Ernest Hemmingway in 1957 who requested to wear a sweater for the sitting as he had seen Karsh's portrait of Einstein in a sweater; and Jacques Costeau in 1972 amongst others. By the time the Karsh studio closed in 1992 after nearly 60 years of business, he had photographed every Canadian prime minister since Mackenzie King, every French president since Charles de Gaulle, every British prime minister since Winston Churchill and every U.S. president since Herbert Hoover.
Born in Armenia in 1908 to Christian Armenian parents, Karsh's early childhood was coloured by the atrocities committed by Turkey against the Armenian population at the start of the twentieth century. His father was forced into hiding to avoid arrest and in 1921 the Karsh family were able to escape to Syria, with only one donkey and no belongings. The course of Karsh's life was changed when his uncle, George Nakash, wrote to the family from Canada asking for help in his photography studio. Karsh was sent on the 29-day trip from Beirut to Halifax in the second-class deck to join his uncle in Sherbrooke, Québec. His uncle recognised that the boy had a natural talent for photography and sent him to join his friend and fellow portrait photographer, John H. Garo, in Boston. Garo encouraged Karsh to attend evening art classes where he studied the Old Masters, specifically Rembrandt and Velázquez, and learnt to utilise composition and lighting to portray a sitter to their best advantage. In 1931 Karsh left Boston for Ottawa, with the hope that the capital would afford him more opportunities to photograph dignitaries and international visitors, which duly happened.
His work is in permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the George Eastman House Museum of Photography and Film, National Portrait Gallery, London and the National Portrait Gallery of Australia amongst others. Library and Archives Canada holds his complete collection, including negatives, prints and documents.