Karsh's 1941 portrait of Winston Churchill, one of the most reproduced photos ever, launched his career. Churchill had just given a rousing speech to the Canadian parliament during the dark hours of Britain's struggle against the Nazis, but when Karsh confronted the great man for a picture, he was grumpy. After Karsh plucked the cigar out of the prime minister's mouth, Churchill glared balefully at him. The glowering image made the cover of Life magazine, and Churchill's belligerent stare became a symbol of the British people's bulldog spirit.
During a 60-year career, Karsh attempted to record, he said, "the human spirit, the human soul" of "giants of the earth." His highly detailed portraits of movers and shakers can be very moving. They also shake our conventional perceptions. In a tight close-up taken in 1971, Fidel Castro stares into the camera with steely resolve. Yet a few gray hairs in his beard and his soft mouth suggest a well-meaning idealist, the crusading revolutionary he once was.
To Estrellita Karsh, the secret of her husband's success as a person and a photographer lay in his humanity. "The level at which he met" his subjects, she said in an interview, "was primarily human." She believes Karsh's innate optimism and faith in the goodness of people brought out the best in his subjects.
His pictures, shot during both the hot and cold wars, provided hope in a difficult time. Nikita Krushchev, swathed in a fur coat and smiling benignly, seems no more capable than Santa Claus of sending nuclear missiles into Cuba. "The face of the eternal peasant, perhaps the collective portrait of a great people" is how Karsh described the portrait taken in 1963.