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The Day I Photographed Yousuf Karsh

I was recently asked about the day that I photographed one of the 20th century’s preeminent portrait photographers.

Yousuf Karsh burst into global celebrity when in 1941 he took this photograph Winston_Churchill_1941_photo_by_Yousuf_Karshof then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. For the next several decades the world’s mighty and famous clamoured for his talents.

His waiting list for a portrait sitting extended into years and I can’t imagine what his services cost.

He could have worked in London, Paris, New York but instead he kept his studio in Ottawa, on the sixth floor of the Chateau Laurier Hotel. It just so happened that for several years I worked as a broadcast journalist on the seventh and eighth floors of the same building and we often rode up and down together in the hotel’s elevators.

And so it came about one day that I took my own photograph that catapulted me into minor Ottawa journalistic celebrity.

Here is my account of that day as I wrote it for Scrum Magazine, published by the National Press Club in 1996.

 

KARSH BY GRANT

Over the years, Yousuf Karsh and I have developed a remote, vaguely European, nodding acquaintance by sharing elevators and holding doors open for each other. Karsh lives in the Chateau Laurier Hotel where until recently he had his portrait studio. CBC Northern Service and my office was also in the Chateau.

So it was quite normal for me to stop and chat with Karsh one day as I made my way from the Chateau to Parliament Hill. We said good morning with 19th century civility and talked about the October sun and fall colours.

Karsh asked me what kind of cameras I had in my bag. I explained that there were no cameras, that I used a camera bag to carry my recording equipment. Then I remembered the tiny Olympus (one button does everything) tucked into an outside pouch. I pulled it out.

“I wonder if you would take my picture?” I said, knowing that I was pushing the limits of our courtly relationship, but the thought of having my portrait done by Karsh for nothing made me bold.

“No, I am sorry. You see I am on my way to work. If I took your picture that would be work.”

“Well can I take yours?”

“Yes that would be nice.” And with that he instantly struck a pose.

Months later, I finally got around to dropping off a copy at his studio.

A few days later I answered my phone and I had one of the shortest conversations I can ever recall.

“Karsh here. I want to thank you for the picture. My wife says it’s the best picture she’s seen of me.”  And he hung up.

Shortly after, he retired from full time portrait work. Too much young competition I suspect.