I am always overjoyed when I receive feedback from my blog subscribers regarding a recent post—especially if they have some personal connection to the story as well (this was a good example).
Last month I published a blog discussing both Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen, and the importance of May 13 in their lives. As part of my blog, I included a photo of Churchill. Just about everybody who knows anything about Churchill has seen it. It has graced the book jackets of more than one Churchill biography. In fact, it has been called one of the most iconic photos ever taken; according to The Economist magazine, it is the “most reproduced portrait in the history of photography.” To many it epitomizes all the characteristics we associate with the man who led the British through World War II: truculence; doggedness; pugnacity; defiance in the face of overwhelming odds.
Well, like all good stories, there is a backstory to this one as well, as I recently learned. The photo was taken by an Armenian-Canadian photographer named Yousuf Karsh. Born Hovsep Karsh in 1908, he and his family escaped the Armenian genocide to Syria in 1922. From there he was sent to Canada by his family, arriving in 1923. He lived in Quebec for five years with an uncle who was a portrait photographer, and who taught him the trade, starting with a Box Brownie camera. From 1929—1931 he apprenticed with another Armenian photographer in Boston, John Garo.
Returning to Canada in 1932, Karsh set up his own studio in Ottawa. He managed to capture the attention of Mackenzie King, Canada’s Prime Minister, who helped arrange portraits of visiting dignitaries.
On December 30, 1941, one of those visiting dignitaries happened to be Winston Churchill, in town taking a break from the Arcadia Conference talks in DC. Following an address to the Canadian Parliament, Karsh arranged to photograph Churchill. The first shot was quite standard, showing a smiling, jovial Churchill. Prior to the second shot, Karsh snatched the trademark Churchill cigar from him. Churchill was miffed, and showed it. Thus is history made, and thus we remember England’s feisty wartime leader.
Now, how do I know all this? Much of it is available on-line and in various history books. But the person who brought it to my attention was Pamela B. I met Pam while giving the Wallenberg Memorial Address to the Nordic Museum in Seattle last June (here). After my Churchill blog was posted last month, Pam wrote me about Karsh, and revealed that she knew the great Karsh: looking for a summer job following high school graduation in Ottawa, Pam was hired on as the cook and housekeeper. She writes “it was an interesting experience to work for someone so famous with a home full of mementos from his decades of hanging out with luminaries across the US and Europe.” Pam was even interviewed by Karsh’s biographer for any telling insights. She had none to relay, probably because, as she informed me, she was fired within three weeks (whether for deficiencies in housekeeping or cooking is not known).
There is yet another connection. Pam’s husband Gary is the “world’s leading expert in the artistic depiction of facial expression” and writes a blog about such matters, including one on Churchill’s famous scowl (here).
“Wait,” as they say on some TV commercials, “there’s more!”
Yousef had a younger brother Malak who was also a talented photographer. He developed in to a premier landscape photographer (so as not to compete directly with his brother). The Canadian $1 dollar bill (no longer in use) once depicted Queen Elizabeth on one side (photo by Yousuf) and a logjam on the Ottawa River just below Parliament on the obverse (courtesy of Malak). Not too surprising that Pam would know Malak’s story as well—she dated Malak’s son Laurence in high school!
Now, back to Yousuf. By the time he died in 2002, age 93, he was regarded as one of the leading photographers of the Twentieth Century. More than 20 of Yousuf’s photos graced the cover of Life magazine, including the Churchill shot. The picture did not actually appear until May 21, 1945, almost four years after it was taken. That was shortly after VE Day, a victory Churchill did almost as much as anyone to help accomplish.
Are there any other connections we can pack into this blog? Well, my May 13 blog spoke about both Churchill and Fridtjof Nansen. The Armenians (which Yousuf always thought of himself) still revere Fridtjof Nansen for all the work he did following World War I to assist them. Every April 24, the date commemorating the start of the Armenian Genocide, they have a ceremony at Fridtjof’s gravesite in Lysaker, Norway. In 2011 the Armenian Government flew Nansen’s granddaughter (and my dear friend) Marit (Nansen) Greve to Yerevan, their capital city, so she could witness the unveiling of a new memorial to Fridtjof.
It’s amazing what one little blog can unleash! I hope some future subject causes you to reach out to me as well with your story!