Today I present to you 20 iconic 20th century portraits made by master photographer Yousuf Karsh. Has created psychological portraits of many influential people of the 20th century, men and women that have dictated rules and tastes of that time in different fields, business, politics, science, medicine and the arts.

The photos you are about to see are really a gold mine for anyone who is passionate about photography, history and culture, but for those who like to remember the past in a way that is sometimes ironic. I'm sure these pictures, in the time you've already seen it all, because are really famous. These are some of the iconic characters of the twentieth century in the fantastic collection of photographer Yousuf Karsh.

Yousuf Karsh was born at the beginning of the last century (1908) in the western part of Armenia and at the age of 16 years with the whole family moved to Canada to escape political persecution in his country. Begins to work very early before as an assistant to his uncle (also photographer) and then as assistant to portrait photographer John Garo.


Achieved great success in 1941, year in which he took one of his most famous photographs: the portrait of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. From that point onwards his career will have a breakthrough and retract some of the most famous people of the twentieth century by artists to playwrights, from writers to influential politicians because of its extraordinary ability to capture the essence and emotion of the subject.

Karsh's talent was ability to tap into the humanity of subjects, regardless of their character and nature, a perfect example is the shoot of Anna Magnani.


Iconic 20th century portraits by Yousuf Karsh

I leave you to the collection of 20 Canadian photographs with anecdotes recounted by the same photographer. Not all for the moment, but I'm working on!


Albert Einstein – 1948

Albert Einstein by Yousuf Karsh
This picture was taken at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study where the scientist worked. Karsh before taking the photo made some questions to learn more about his subject and asked him what would happen to the world if it had been launched another atomic bomb, Einstein replied sadly:

“Alas, We will no longer be able to hear the music of Mozart.” “Ahimè, non saremo più in grado di ascoltare la musica di Mozart.”


Winston Churchill – 1941

Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh
This is the most famous work by Karsh. In 1941 Winston Churchill was on a visit abroad, and when he was invited to Ottawa by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, the photographer was hired for a session. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Churchill that he was not enthusiastic about.

But the reason of frowning expression is not the surprise for photography: Churchill always smoked the cigar and Karsh not wanted to photograph him as he smoked and then very gently took the cigar out of the mouth of the Prime Minister, visibly upset. Here is the world's most famous photo.


Ernest Hemmingway – 1957

Ernest Hemmingway by Yousuf Karsh
This iconic photo was taken at Finca Vigia in the writer's house in Havana. Karsh did not want to be caught unprepared and the night before he decided to go to the bar frequented by Hemingway to sample some of his favorite cocktails.

The next day before the shooting the writer asked kindly what could offer a drink to the photographer and when they replied:

"Daiquiri, Sir. " "Good God, Karsh,” Hemingway said "at this hour of the day!”


Jacques Cousteau – 1972

Jacques Cousteau by Yousuf Karsh

"In his wetsuit, his profile reminiscent of a thirteenth-century mystic, Jacques Cousteau reminded me of a medieval seer. As I photographed this knight of the twentieth century, I was fascinated to learn about his underwater research. “It is the key to human survival, we risk poisoning the sea forever, just when we are learning her scenic art and philosophy, and learning to live in her embrace.”

“Nella sua muta, il suo profilo ricorda una mistica del XIII secolo, Jacques Cousteau mi ha ricordato un veggente medievale. Come ho fotografato questo cavaliere del XX secolo, sono rimasto affascinato dalla sua conoscenza della ricerca subacquea. “È la chiave per la sopravvivenza umana, si rischia l’avvelenamento del mare, proprio quando stiamo imparando la sua arte e filosofia, e impariamo a vivere nel suo abbraccio.”


Muhammad Ali – 1970

Muhammad Ali by Yousuf Karsh

“The Greatest and I talked about his triumphs, about patent medicine, about the commercials he was making, but there was for me no real contact. The pinstriped suit he wore for our sitting was chosen not for business but to command the respect he rightly felt he deserved.”

“Io e Alì abbiamo parlato dei suoi trionfi, del suo “patent medicine”, delle pubblicità che stava facendo, ma non c’era per me alcun contatto reale. L’abito gessato che indossava per la nostra seduta venne scelto non per affari, ma per mostrare il rispetto che giustamente meritava.


George Bernard Shaw – 1943

George Bernard Shaw by Yousuf Karsh

“Shaw came bursting into the room with the energy of a young man, though he was almost ninety years old. His manner, his penetrating old eyes, his flashing wit, and his bristling beard were all designed to awe me; in the beginning they succeeded.”

“Shaw irruppe nella stanza con l’energia di un giovane uomo, pur essendo quasi vicino ai novant’anni. I suoi modi, i suoi penetranti occhi verdi, il suo spirito e la barba ispida erano studiati per mettermi in soggezione; all’inizio ci riuscirono.”


Andy Warhol – 1979

Andy Warhol by Yousuf Karsh


Alfred Hitchcock – 1960

Alfred Hitchcock by Yousuf Karsh


Audrey Hepburn – 1956

Audrey Hepburn by Yousuf Karsh

Karsh photographed the young actress in Hollywood 1956 and he spoke of her extraordinary beauty, vulnerability and sophistication but also of the suffering that she had experienced during World War II.

This photo is a true icon, so much so that years later President Brezhnev agreed to pose for the photographer only if would portrait nice like Audrey Hepburn (what almost impossible…).


Fidel Castro – 1971

Fidel Castro by Yousuf Karsh

“Dressed in army fatigues, looking grave and tired, Castro shook my hand warmly. Apologizing for the delay, he removed his belt and pistol and placed them beside him with a weary gesture. Our photographic session lasted three-and-a-half hours, punctuated by refreshments of Cuban rum and Coke and shared memories of the famous author and beloved former Cuban resident, Ernest Hemingway.”

“Vestito in mimetica, con lo sguardo grave e stanco, Castro mi strinse la mano con calore. Scusandosi per il ritardo, si tolse la cintura e pistola e li mise accanto a lui con un fare stanco. La nostra sessione fotografica durò tre ore e mezzo, punteggiato da un rinfresco di rum cubano e Coca-Cola e memorie condivise del famoso autore Ernest Hemingway.


Humphrey Bogart – 1946

Humphrey Bogart by Yousuf Karsh

Bogart and his English butler had planned a thoughtful surprise to accommodate the photographer, a copy of the magazine Illustrated London News open to his portrait of King George VI.


HM Queen Elizabeth II – 1951

HM Queen Elizabeth II by Yousuf Karsh


Anna Magnani – 1958

Anna Magnani by Yousuf Karsh

Karsh asked the Italian actress:

“Why did she begin acting?” "Because of unhappiness perhaps. I wanted to do so many things. I exploded with ideas... like firecrackers. "

“Perché ha iniziato a recitare?” “A causa di infelicità, forse. Ho voluto fare tante cose. Ero un’esplosione di idee… come petardi.”


John Fitzgerald Kennedy – 1960

John Fitzgerald Kennedy by Yousuf Karsh


Martin Luther King – 1962

Martin Luther King by Yousuf Karsh


Grace Kelly – 1956

Grace kelly by Yousuf Karsh

The movie star Grace Kelly Karsh received in his New York apartment in blue jeans and curlers. She was struggling with her preparations for departure to the Principality of Monaco where he was going to marry Prince Rainieri. Later the Royal couple's profile portrait was used as the official photo and stamp of the Principality.


Pablo Picasso – 1954

Pablo Picasso by Yousuf Karsh

According to Karsh Maestro's house was a real nightmare for a photographer, not only for the disorder, canvas and miscellaneous works but also to the constant presence of children in bicycle playing at home.

Picasso well aware of the difficulties, suggested to move into pottery workshop and so could take the picture.


Mother Teresa – 1988

Mother Teresa by Yousuf Karsh

Mother Teresa was in Canada after an extenuated fundraising tour for her order in favour of the poor. Even on that occasion proved simple woman that everyone knows refusing the luxurious meal to eat in kitchens. She agreed to pose for the photograph only if it would help her order.


Nelson Mandela1990

Nelson Mandela by Yousuf Karsh

Mandela arrived in Karsh's studio in Ottawa with only an hour of rest after a trip from South Africa. Karsh saw that Mandela was exhausted and that attract a spontaneous photography would be very difficult, so he decided to try tell him about a recent photo session with the Pope.

During the chat (with Pope) he asked: “How many people work in the Vatican?” “About half of them!“. For a moment the fatigue and problems with Mandela disappeared and found the hilarious short story. Click! Karsh managed to capture that moment in this portrait.


Woody Allen

Woody Allen by Yousuf Karsh


To see many other characters and read stories visit the Web site of photographer Yousuf Karsh.

About The Author


Hello Valentina here, art director, bloggers and tea lover. I like to discover new things and love the creativity in all forms, seeking creative ideas and resources for my work and I am convinced that you are so. Am I wrong?

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