BEHIND ICONIC PHOTOS: The Roar and the Smile

Iconic photos of public figures can capture a moment in time that marks an entire era, or becomes emblematic of a specific day in history. Such is the case with the iconic photo of the Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh. If you enjoy this type of article you won’t want to miss our last Behind Iconic Photos blog post about heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali by photographer Neil Leifer.

Karsh was born in Mardin (former Armenia, now Turkish territory) but as many others had to flee from his hometown because of the Armenian genocide. They moved to Syria and finally settled in Canada.

Looking for better conditions for their son to succeed, Yousuf’s parents sent him to Boston a few years, under the tutelage of Hungarian photographer John Garo, from whom he learned something more important than technique alone – what it takes to become a master portrait photographer and take iconic photos. Garo transformed the life of young Karsh and influenced his desire to portray people who had a positive impact on our world.

“Understand clearly what you are seeking to achieve, and when it is there, record it. Art is never fortuitous.” – John Garo.

Karsh later moved to Ottawa, where he opened a portrait studio with the intent of photographing what he called “people of consequence”. He then met the Prime Minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, who introduced him to the political scene, ordering portraits of foreign dignitaries on official visits.

Karsh gained a discreet reputation, but fame came to him in 1941, when the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Ottawa and he had the opportunity to photograph him. This photo would be one of the most famous and reproduced photographic portraits in history.

Words of Y. Karsh about Winston Churchill’s portrait:

“My portrait of Winston Churchill changed my life. I knew after I had taken it that it was an important picture, but I could hardly have dreamed that it would become one of the most widely reproduced images in the history of photography. In 1941, Churchill visited first Washington and then Ottawa. The Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, invited me to be present. After the electrifying speech, I waited in the Speaker’s Chamber where, the evening before, I had set up my lights and camera.

The Prime Minister, arm-in-arm with Churchill and followed by his entourage, started to lead him into the room. I switched on my floodlights; a surprised Churchill growled, ‘What’s this, what’s this?‘ No one had the courage to explain. I timorously stepped forward and said, “Sir, I hope I will be fortunate enough to make a portrait worthy of this historic occasion.” He glanced at me and demanded, ‘Why was I not told?‘ When his entourage began to laugh, this hardly helped matters for me.

Churchill lit a fresh cigar, puffed at it with a mischievous air, and then magnanimously relented. ‘You may take one.’ Churchill’s cigar was ever present. I held out an ashtray, but he would not dispose of it. I went back to my camera and made sure that everything was all right technically. I waited; 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.”


Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh, captured in 1941 during the early years of World War II


Ever the diplomat, Churchill then smiled and said, “You may take another one” and shook Karsh’s hand, telling him, “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.’



This second photo, in which Churchill is smiling, never went down in history as the other. The first one was published in the American daily PM and even graced the cover of LIFE magazine, becoming one of the most famous in history. In 1967, Karsh was appointed member of the Order of Canada, the highest ranking civil order.

In 2000, according International Who’s Who’s selection of the 100 most influential people of the century, Karsh had photographed an astonishing 51.


“I try to photograph people’s spirits and thoughts…” – Yousuf Karsh.

What was Karsh’s secret to creating such memorable portraits ? It is probably a combination of his deep knowledge of studio lighting and his ability to interact with his subjects that led him to achieve such breathtaking results. Yousuf Karsh is considered one of the best portrait photographers of the 20th century.


What are your favorite iconic photos and why? Which ones would you like us to explore in another blog post ?