Winston Churchill by Yousef Karsh


It was one of the most famous portraits ever made. Some say it is the most reproduced image in history. It was on the cover of LIFE magazine 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 angry that he had not been told he was to be photographed; he lit a fresh cigar and puffed mischievously.

Karsh asked Churchill to remove the cigar in his mouth, but Churchill refused. Karsh walked up to Churchill supposedly to get a light level and casually pulled the signature cigar from the lips of Churchill and walked back toward his camera. As he walked he clicked his camera remote, capturing the ‘determined’ look on Churchill’s face, which was in fact a reflection of his indignantcy. Karsh recounted: “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 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 next photo Karsh took, where Churchill was smiling, was less memorable:


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

78 thoughts on “Winston Churchill by Yousef Karsh”

  1. taken in december 1941 in ottawa. in fact there were three pictures . the first one called the roaring lion was not very liked by his wife clementine. but it depicts churchill in a defiant mood.

    1. Try the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa, Ontario! Karsh donated most of his stuff to the archives before dying at over 90. Trivia: the last portrait (done as a double sitting) was commissioned (and carried out) for former President Bill Clinton and his wife former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On a personal
      note, I am looking for a poster sized photo of the Reverend Martin Luther King. In light lettering, it has, printed on the surface his profound ” I Have a Dream” speech. That speech is a classic in the historical
      context in which it was given!

  2. by a karsh book . you will get this picture in many of them . one called karsh portaits has this .

  3. I too find the less memorable photograph more appealing than the other. It is appealing and warm while the other is so intense. I suppose that is why the other is more known.

  4. What wonderful pictures of me! I remember that day like it was just yesterday. Good old Canada. Yousef Karsh was a phenomenal artist.

  5. These images are so striking and iconic. However I much prefer the ‘bulldog attitude’ of the first image. Karsh has managed to convey such a powerful and determined leader all through the expressions on Churchill’s face.

    1. I don’t think he is ‘much maligned’ at all. In fact I think history has been far too kind to him. He wasn’t always a hero and was in fact, a mass murderer. Among many atrocities, Churchill was the first person to gas the Kurds – on mass saying “I do not understand this sqeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.”

      1. Shocking comment I agree… I was saying maligned in the sense that he was not autistic, alcoholic etc
        And we still needed someone – however flawed – to do what he did to hold the world together in the face of the Nazi terror – there Was no-one else. Everyone had had to flee – mostly to England….and America didn’t want to join the fight until the Japanese forced her to.
        Did you read my story?

    1. churchill saw through hitler from the beginning . he saved western civilisation . he was no warmonger but was not afraid of war either .

    1. This isn’t an article about Churchill. This is an article about art- specifically photography. Perhaps if instead of climbing on a soapbox at every possible opportunity, people like you (with agendas) chose appropriate moments, they wouldn’t dilute their own message.
      And before you pull out the self-righteousness, my paternal bloodline with the sole exception of my grandfather was slaughtered in a Krakow ghetto in ’42.

      1. winston along with a few others saved westrern civilisation . from the bane of hitler this is the most important .

    2. Probably best if you read your history and checked your full facts first. Churchill wasn’t perfect, and he had a questionable past politically, but he stood up AGAINST racist, genocidal bigots and thugs when it mattered, and gave refuge to many people who would have been exterminated by the Nazi regime. If he was as you claimed, we as a nation under Churchill would have joined the war against the Nazis as Hitler wanted, not fought them, and certainly not given their victims refuge. I only speak as one whose parents had first hand experience, rather than taking my opinions from a book summary on Amazon.

  6. i never understood why everyone says Churchill looks so grumpy in this photo (the first, famous one). He has a gleam in his eyes, ahint of a cheeky smile and looks pretty affable I think.

  7. they were four more pics taken on this day . two with mckenzie king followed . winston saved civilisation from the bane of hitler .

  8. Could you tell me where I could find a bibliografical content of what you write here? I’m making a research and i want to read more about Karsh work. Thank you.

    1. after the some chicken some neck speech . three or four others pics were taken two with mackenzie king . canada premier .

  9. […] Karsh, the portraitist who can be said to have made the definitive images of Winston Churchill, Audrey Hepburn, JFK, Ernest Hemingway, and countless other notables, said “within every man […]

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