Study the Masters: Yousuf Karsh

In Influences, Study the Masters by David10 Comments

Albert Schweitzer - Karsh

Yousuf Karsh was one of my earliest influences. His portraits, much of his work in black and white, were simple, elegant, and deeply human. An Armenian-Canadian, Karsh was born in Turkey in 1908, worked most of his life in Ottawa, and died in 2002, leaving behind a lifetime of beautiful portraits of the leaders of his generation. I think what draws me, still, to Karsh’s work, is the lack of pretense or cleverness; I never get the feeling he’s saying “look at me,” I never get distracted by his craft, and I think that’s one of the marks of a true master.

You can find more of Karsh’s work through the official website here, but I think there’s no substitute for seeing it in print. When I was in rehab a couple of years ago in Ottawa, and learning to walk again, Karsh’s prints loomed large in the hallways. I’d walk past Churchill often, glowering down at me, daring me to complain or give up. His portrait of Schweitzer, above, still moves me, after 25 years of looking at it.

You can get your hands on books of Karsh’s work on Amazon. I recommend Karsh: A Sixty Year Retrospective, Karsh Portraits,  and Karsh: Beyond the Camera, is great if you want to read the stories behind his work.

I call this feature Study the Masters because I think really studying – not merely looking at – the works of great photographers, is one of the best ways to learn this craft. Sure, look at the images. But really read them. Interact. Ask questions – why did the photographer choose this particular moment or gesture? What can I learn from the light? How does each image make you feel? What does his body of work say to you? You won’t like it all, but you can learn from it all.

A thanks, too, to reader Bryan Nelson for the reminder that your local library might have many of these books. You don’t have to buy every one of these books (though you wouldn’t know that to see the growing stacks here in my loft.)


  1. Whenever I’m in Ottawa I try to stop by the Chateau Laurier to look at their collection of prints in the main lobby. Amazing.

  2. I was familiar with the iconic Churchill image. But I hadn’t taken the time to look at some of his other work before. I will be doing so more often. What strikes me most from the images and the brief descriptions on the site is that he spent enough time with each to capture their humanity. I don’t think I had ever paid attention to that in any image of Castro I had seen before. In each image I feel a conversation with the soul of the individual. “Hush, young man, Hush – can’t you see I am listening to the music!” And you can hear it with your eyes in every image.

  3. He was an artist who had to pay the bills,check this work…Yousuf Karsh: Industrial Images

  4. Thanks for this and thanks for your blog. I like gear, but it’s great that you talk about the tinkgs that really matter in photography or art, for that matter. Karsh was fortunate to photograph so many great people who I’ve admired all my life.

  5. I am so happy to be turned on to Yousuf’s work. I think Stanley Park, 1952 and Ford of Canada, 1951 are two of the most well crafted photographs I have seen in a long time. The story each holds… Thanks is all I have to say.

  6. As a Canadian and an avid (now professional) photographer, I had always admired Karsh’s work, through books and maybe a bit on the internet. But I had never seen his work large and up close until the Calgary Stampede had a major exhibition of his work in 2002.

    So I spend a whole afternoon, literally thunderstruck with the magnificent full size, in your face, prints of folks ranging from paupers to kings. Unexpectedly I gravitated to his masterpiece photograph of Winston Churchill. Unexpectedly in that I usually am not enamored with most artists or photographer’s “signature” works. It this case, the public sentiment was “right” … what an incredibly powerful portrait of such an important man, never mind the incredible background story to this iconic photograph.

    Once I arrived home that evening, I blathered on to my wife about seeing this magnificent photographer and his incredible body of work. She then told me that she had just heard on the news that Karsh had just passed away that day. That moment still sends shivers down my spine.

  7. Thank you for this post, David. I wasn’t familiar with Yousuf’s work but I’m glad I finally discovered it. Amazing! I look forward to spending some time studying and appreciating his portraits.

  8. As Karen mentioned the National Portrait Gallery has a installation up and it’s fantastic. I bought one of the books about him on Amazon to study in more detail before I even left the Gallery.

  9. FYI-if you’re in the Washington, D.C. area, the second installation of “Yousuf Karsh: American Portraits” recently opened at the national portrait gallery and is on display until November 2.

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