Stunning Portraits

The Man Who Photographed the 20th Century’s Greatest Icons

Over a 60-year career, Yousuf Karsh took some of the most notable images of the world’s leading minds and biggest stars. A new show in Paris exhibits some of his powerful portraits.

In 1990, shortly after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and only hours after he’d landed in Ottawa, Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh met the South African activist at the Château Laurier Hotel, with the idea of commemorating his visit to Canada. But Mandela seemed tired. The photographs weren’t coming out “real.” So Karsh—a man of warmth, beloved for his painless bedside manner and sincerely human interest in photographic subjects—switched off the lights. They should take a break and just talk. He remarked that it must be very hard: only four months ago Mandela had been in jail; now he was traveling with a whirlwind entourage. Mandela replied that it was—he didn't even know what half these people with him did.

"It reminds me of when I photographed Pope John XXIII," Karsh said softly. "I asked him how many people worked in the Vatican—and he said, ‘About half.’" Mandela was quiet. At first he didn't get the joke, but then he was slapping his thigh, poking his finger at his photographer. "Aren't you funny?" Mandela said, giggling, his face awash in that unstoppable smile. At that point Karsh resumed the session—with Mandela now and then dissolving into laughter and pointing. Two minutes later, he took the iconic portrait that Apple has used on its homepage, replacing all product information, as a tribute to the former South African statesman who died earlier this month.

In addition to Nelson Mandela, Karsh photographed 15,312 people in his 60-year career. Seventy-two of those portraits are on exhibit at the Mona Bismarck American Center for arts and culture, in Paris, until January 26. One the most iconic photographers of the 21st century, Karsh was eventually asked to take a picture of most everyone who figured prominently in the 1900s—painters, presidents, comedians, architectures, and authors ranging from Mother Teresa to Fidel Castro.

But Icons of the 20th Century, curated by Jerry Fielder, a former photographic assitant who became the director of the Yousuf Karsh estate upon the photographer’s death in 2002, focuses solely on Karsh’s work with French and American citizens, which allowed him to include less-well-known influencers like Marc Chagall. (Pablo Picasso, who was a Spanish citizen, though he lived in Paris most of his life, was the only portrait that was snuck in. It occupies the mantlepiece of the exhibit, and, as Fielder says, “No one has complained.”)

Fielder collected the black-and-white portraiture of humanitarians, scientists, artists, and politicians in three rooms, and placed them next to each other according to interesting comparisons and juxtapositions, like guests at a wedding reception. In this arrangement, architect I.M. Pei, who designed the Louvre’s pyramidal addition, hangs next to America’s most famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright; visionaries Martin Luther King, Jr. and Helen Keller (Karsh’s favorite sitter) stand shoulder-to-shoulder; and French couturier Christian Dior mingles in a corner with a fresh-faced, 14-year-old Elizabeth Taylor.

Born in Turkish Armenia in 1908 during the Armenian genocide, Karsh watched his sister die of starvation before the family was able to escape to Syria in 1922. Eventually the Karshes saved enough money to send 17-year-old Yousuf, eldest of the surviving brothers, to live with his uncle in Canada. A photographer himself, Karsh’s uncle put a camera in the boy’s hands and, seeing in his nephew an natural gift for understanding light and composition, arranged for him to apprentice in Boston with John Garo. By 1931, Karsh had returned to Ottawa and opened his own studio. Ten years later, Karsh captured “the epitome of the indomitable spirit of the British people” with a definitive portrait of Winston Churchill, launching his career.

Here and there, Karsh quietly allowed character-informing details into his frames. Andy Warhol, for example, drags a paintbrush across his right cheek, and Walt Disney appears against a Californian wall painted with the likenesses of some of his creations, including Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Bambi, and the chipmunks Chip and Dale—photobombers, in today’s parlance. And unlike the majority of great lensmen, Karsh was a master printmaker who developed film according to his own chemical formulas. One remarkable case of that technical genius is his portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe (1956), seated with sunlight splashed brightly on her face from a window thrown open. On the wall behind her, the antlers of a deer skull tower overhead, and amazingly, even the nuances of the painter’s black dress are clearly visible.

In addition to a shower of track lighting, Fielder chose to light the American Center’s many crystal chandeliers, and the effect is homey, that of a house party filled with luminaries. Every turn of the head is met with one of many of the familiar faces who have defined the past century—all of them caught by Karsh in their moment. But this show is as much about the man behind the camera, as the people in front of it. “If you realize Eisenhower is not looking at you,” Fielder says, “he’s looking at Yousuf, and Mitterrand is looking at Yousuf, and they’re all looking at Yousuf—if you look at all seventy-two portraits, I think you get a seventy-third.”