Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Roaring Lion

"Within every man and woman a secret is hidden, and as a photographer it is my task to reveal it if I can. The revelation, if it comes at all, will come in a small fraction of a second with an unconscious gesture, a gleam of the eye, a brief lifting of the mask that all humans wear to conceal their innermost selves from the world. In that fleeting interval of opportunity, the photographer must act or lose his prize."

Yousuf Karsh (1908-2002)


Karsh’s famous portrait of Winston Churchill—said to be the most-reproduced photograph in history—was taken in 1941 on commission from LIFE magazine. It was soon to appear on the cover of LIFE, and instantly made the photographer’s name. The photograph was also to become Churchill’s personal favorite likeness of himself.

The photograph was taken on December 30, 1941, in The Speaker’s Chambers of The House Of Commons in Ottawa, where Churchill had just completed an address to The Canadian Parliament.

MacKenzie King, then Prime Minister of Canada, had arranged for the portrait session—without informing Churchill.

Upon being confronted with the photographer, Churchill growled, “Why was I not told of this?” and lighted a cigar.

King pleaded with Churchill to allow himself to be photographed by the young Canadian photographer, and Churchill relented, gruffly informing Karsh that he would grant him “two minutes”.

A grateful Karsh requested Churchill to remove the cigar, and Churchill refused—at which point Karsh approached Churchill, snatched the cigar from his lips, walked back to his camera and snapped the picture. The glowering image of Churchill was the result—and it soon came to represent the great wartime leader for the duration of the war, defiant and unconquerable. Karsh himself titled his photograph of the scowling, belligerent Churchill, “The Roaring Lion”.

Less well-known is the second photograph of Churchill that Karsh snapped that day. The second photograph, taken thirty seconds after the first, shows a smiling Churchill—and it was the second photograph, and not the first, that became Karsh’s personal favorite among the thousands of portraits he created during more than seven decades of work.

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