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The Dennos Museum Center

Yousuf Karsh: Portraying Greatness

September 23, 2007 to January 6, 2008

Yousuf Karsh was born in Mardin, Armenia in Turkey in 1908.  To escape the massacres in their homeland, his family fled to Aleppo, Syria, in 1922.  In December of 1924, Yousuf’s parents arranged for his immigration to Canada, where he joined his uncle, George Nakash, a photographer living in Québec.  Nakash sent Yousuf to Boston in 1928, to apprentice with John Garo, an eminent portrait photographer and friend of writers, musicians, and theater celebrities.  Karsh later wrote, “It was here I set my heart on photographing those men and women who leave their mark on the world.”

In 1931, Karsh opened a studio in Ottawa, Canada.  He also joined the Ottawa Little Theatre, where his introduction to stage lighting was a revelation and added another dimension to his approach to photography.  “Moods were created, selected, modified, intensified,“ he wrote. “I was thrilled by this means of expression….a new world was opened to me.”

Karsh’s practice of photographing his subjects in their own environment and the rapport he established with his sitters enabled him to capture their “inward power, part of the elusive secret that hides in everyone… The mask we present to others, and too often to ourselves, may lift for only a second—to reveal that power in an unconscious gesture, a raised brow, a surprised response, a moment of repose.”  He had great sensitivity and an instinctive understanding of each person who sat for him, and he quickly established an atmosphere of trust so that the sitting became a true collaboration. 

Karsh was not only a uniquely gifted photographer, but also a superb printer.  He was exacting in every stage of his work, and this artistic talent and technical skill blended to produce iconic portraits such as those of Winston Churchill, Albert Einstein, Ernest Hemingway, and Georgia O’Keeffe.  These timeless photographs are joined in this exhibition by portraits of statesmen, musicians, writers, scientists, and legends from the visual and performing arts.

Karsh worked through his 82nd year and closed his studio in 1992. By the time he retired, he had held 15,312 sittings, produced over 150,000 negatives, and left an invaluable artistic and historic document of the men and women who shaped our world.  In 1997, he and his wife, Estrellita, relocated to Boston, the scene of his early apprenticeship, where he died in 2002.

Adapted from Jerry Fielder, Yousuf Karsh: A Biography in Images, 2003

This exhibition was made possible with support from Governor James and Janet Blanchard, the Robert T and Ruth Haidt Hughes Memorial Endowment Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, and individual portrait sponsors, with media support from TV 7&4.