Karsh began his study of photography at an early age. Born in Mardin, Turkey in 1908, he was sent by his family, at the age of 16, to Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada where he apprenticed with his photographer uncle, George Nakash. Nakash felt his nephew had great potential as a photographer and arranged for him to study in Boston with a fellow Armenian portrait photographer, Joseph Garo. When he returned to Canada, he set up his own studio in Ottawa in 1932, not far from the seat of Canada’s government and through a connection with the prime minister, he began to take portraits of prominent figures.
Karsh had a keen apprehension of the function of light in the context of black and white photography and went to great lengths to achieve the prints that express his signature look. His work at a local theater in Ottawa introduced him to the use of incandescent — as opposed to natural — light and he was to use this medium to dramatic effect in his work. For some of his assignments, he and his assistants would transport as much as 200-300 pounds of lighting equipment to a shoot. He also developed a strategy of lighting his subjects’ hands separately from their faces, a technique that deepened the interest of the shot. Karsh made use of a number of large-format cameras, but his favorite instrument was the Calumet 8” x 10”, whose large negative made possible a finer image quality in the printing process. In many instances, he would spend considerable time with his subjects before actually taking any photographs, talking to them, and persuading them to relax. However, in the case of the famous Churchill photo, taken in 1941 after Churchill’s speech at the Canadian parliament, he recounts that he had only a few minutes to catch the essence of the great man.
The darkroom processing of the image was as important to Karsh as the composition and actual taking of the shot. He developed his own negatives and the prints were made through a photogravure process on especially manufactured heavy paper to produce silver gelatin prints. This process made possible a great range in tonality of the final prints, from the deepest blacks to the most brilliant whites and everything in between. He also made extensive use of retouching to heighten or diminish the density of an image. When he signed the original prints, he used a special heavy, soft, black ink.
In all aspects of his work, Karsh must be admired and respected as the consummate professional who mastered both his art and his craft. There is virtually no photographer today working as Karsh did, and with the advent of digital photography, it is highly unlikely that his darkroom skills will ever be replicated.