Winston Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940-45 and 1951-55. He is remembered by history as a strong leader, crass, and brutish. He was a bull dog of a man and chain smoked big fat cigars. This is however a photography blog, so we are going to discuss not the Englishman, but the Armenian immigrant who lived in Canada.
Yousuf Karsh was a portrait photographer in the twentieth century and one of my favorite photographers of all time. Karsh himself admits....
Churchill was visiting Ottowa, giving speeches to rally the world to the cause of defeating Hitler and Mussolini. You can listen to the highlights of the speech here.
Anyway, As Karsh explains the encounter, Churchill was being escorted by Canadian Prime Minister Mckenzie King and their entourages. Having no idea Canada was planning a photo op...
"I switched on my floodlights; a surprised Churchill growled, ‘What’s this, what’s this?’ No one had the courage to explain."
After timidly explaining he would like to create a portrait for the occasion, Churchill lit a cigar, began to puff, and relented.... "You may take one."
Refusing to give up his cigar, Karsh began double checking all the settings on his lights and camera and probably shaking a little under the pressure of getting it perfect in one shot. Karsh explains the rest of the story best....
"He continued to chomp vigorously at his cigar. I waited. Then I stepped toward him and, without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, ‘Forgive me, sir,’ and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph."
Karsh is one of the most notable photographers of his time, creating portraits of Bogart and Bacall, the Apollo II crew, and Muhammad Ali, to name just a few. This photo he did for Ford of Canada is a testament to his compositional and lighting expertise. It is difficult to understand the amount of thought that goes into these photos unless you have taken one with a film SLR before.
In general, Karsh's portraits can be described as simple but intimate. Each portrait he takes seems to capture the subject in an unscripted moment of internal thought. This is ever present in the hopeful stare of Martin Luther King Jr. the Civil Rights leader. You can also see it in Ernest Hemingway's detached stare into the distance, Muhammad Ali's confident smile, or Andy Warhol's playful gaze.
When you photography tells you capturing the essence of the subject in your photo, this is what they have in mind. Yousuf Karsh could write the book on photographing people. His style is simple and to the point, we can all learn a lot by staring at his photographs. His understanding of light, exposure, and his camera is nothing short of admirable.
Just remember if you work hard enough, you can move mountains. And if you're as good as Yousuf Karsh you can get the belligerent Churchill to smirk.