Winston Churchill by Yousef Karsh

Churchill angry after photographer removed cigar from his mouth during a portrait session
Churchill angry after photographer removed cigar from his mouth during a portrait session

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It was one of the most famous portraits ever made. Some say it was one of the most reproduced images in history. LIFE put it on its cover when WWII ended. The photo was taken by one of the most famous portrait photographers, Yousef Karsh — known as Karsh of Ottawa — on 30 December, 1941, after Churchill gave a speech to Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa. [On the 60th anniversary of that famous speech, Canada honored Karsh and Churchill with a commemorative stamp featuring above photo.]

Karsh was hired by the Canadian government to do this portrait and knew he would have very little time to make the picture. He began by researching Churchill, taking notes on all of the prime minister’s habits, quirks, attitudes and tendencies. When he finally got Churchill seated in the chair, with lights blazing, Churchill snapped. “You have two minutes. And that’s it, two minutes.” The truth was that Churchill was annoyed that he had not been told he was to be photographed; he lit a fresh cigar and puffed mischievously.

Karsh remembered:

“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.

The silence was deafening. Then Mr Churchill, smiling benignly, said, ‘You may take another one.’ He walked toward me, shook my hand and said, ‘You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.'”

The first photo captured the ‘determined’ look on Churchill’s face, which was in fact a reflection of his indignantcy. The next photo Karsh took, where Churchill was smiling, however, was less memorable:

Churchill looking more relaxed in 2nd photo taken during the same session when photographer removed cigar from his mouth

See Karsh’s famous portrait photos here. Also, follow me and Iconic Photos on Twitter here.

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