PO Box 523, Station B,
Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6

PO Box 523, Station B, Ottawa, ON, K1P 5P6
Friday, 17 May 2024 08:48

Paul Couvrette and the Karsh Brothers

Winston Churchill, 30 December 1941. Winston Churchill, 30 December 1941. Yousuf Karsh / Library and Archives Canada / PA-165806

A record crowd of 130 came to hear Paul Couvrette’s Historical Society of Ottawa presentation on the Karsh brothers which was held at the Main Branch of the Ottawa Public Library on the afternoon of April 27, 2024. Paul, a celebrated Ottawa photographer, was both a professional colleague and family friend of the two Karsh brothers. Paul also has the distinction of having photographed all the Prime Ministers from Trudeau to Trudeau, and of being called upon to give photography lessons to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, so she could take better pictures of her Corgis.

Yousuf (1908-2002) and Malak (1915-2001) Karsh, with their parents and brother Jamil, fled the Armenian genocide making their way to Aleppo , Syria in 1922. Late in 1923, Yousuf sailed from Beirut to join his uncle George, a photographer, in Sherbrooke , Quebec. Yousuf had little formal education or knowledge of either French or English, but learnt photography from his uncle before apprenticing in Boston between 1928 and 1931. He then moved to Ottawa and worked for John Powis before opening his own studio in 1932.

Paul showed us a number of photos, some by Yousuf, some by Malak and some of his own. He used these to relate stories, sometimes about the photo itself, sometimes about the technique used, and sometimes focussing on a personal memory or incident. He mentioned that like all photographers starting out, Yousuf did passport photos, shot weddings, did commercial and industrial work, and essentially took on whatever work was available at the time. Yousuf was a member of the Ottawa Little Theatre and did many photos for them. Paul explained that this was where Yousuf developed his lighting style that would later become his trademark in his portrait photographs.

Paul showed us the portrait photo known as “The Roaring Lion”. This is the December 30, 1941 photo of then British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. Paul noted that the shoot, which only lasted a few minutes, was arranged by then Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who was a great supporter of Yousuf Karsh. Paul went on to discuss that story that just prior to the taking of the portrait, Karsh had taken the cigar away from Churchill. He said that he didn’t know if the story is true, but that if it is, it was something that Karsh had likely planned to do, as he researched and spoke with his subjects. This is a technique that Paul learnt from Yousuf and now employs himself. Although it is the best known portrait of Churchill, and is used on the British £5 note, it is not liked by the family. The family remembers Winston as a jovial man, not the scowling bulldog captured by Karsh that day. The photo changed the career and the life of Yousuf Karsh. The Karsh portrait became the “gold standard” and he was now sought out by all persons of importance, and those who believed themselves to be.

Paul then related a humourous side bar to the aforementioned photo. After the theft of a signed print of the photo from the reading room of the Chateau Laurier hotel was announced in August 2022, the Bytown Museum announced, the following April 1st, the anonymous donation to their collection of a similar item. It was a great way for a small museum to garner some press.

Humour is something the public does not associate with Yousuf Karsh, but Paul maintains that he was a very funny man and recounted a couple of stories to illustrate this. On one occasion, Paul encountered Yousuf outside the Chateau Laurier, where he was then living. It was a terrible winter’s day, cold and with driving snow. Paul asked him why he had left the Middle East to come to Canada. Yousuf turned to Paul and replied “the weather”. On another occasion, Paul was talking with Yousuf about a recent portrait the latter had taken. Paul asked if Yousuf had noticed that there was a fly on the back of the chair behind the subject. Yousuf responded that the hardest part of that portrait was to train the fly to sit there while the photo was being taken.

As the fame, demands, and costs of Yousuf Karsh increased, he became unable to meet all the demands that were placed upon him. Paul noted that he was one of the beneficiaries of the referrals that Yousuf was forced to make, one client, a Supreme Court Justice, jokingly referring to Paul as “the poor man’s Karsh”.

In 1937, Malak joined his Uncle George and brother Yousuf in Canada and studied photography with them. Paul told us that although Malak is primarily known for his landscape work, he also did portrait, commercial, and industrial work and showed us examples of each. Malak is, however, best known for his images of Parliament Hill and of tulips. Malak was instrumental in the founding of the Tulip Festival in 1953.

Paul recounted an incident in which he encountered Malak taking a photo of some tulips. Paul remembers that Malak set up and waited for an hour to get exactly the right shot he wanted. Paul explained that in the age of film photography, you took one or perhaps two pictures, unlike the digital age of today when you can take as many pictures as you like and discard the many that are not worth keeping.

Perhaps Malak’s best known photo, (for those of a certain age), was entitled Paper and Politics, It was an unplanned photo taken in 1963 while he was working on a contract for E. B. Eddy and shows a number of logs and logging boats in the Ottawa River below Parliament Hill. The photo served as the inspiration for the engraving on the back of Canada’s last $1 bill. The fascinating story can be read at: Mishap on the dollar .

In 2017 to mark the 150 th anniversary of Confederation and the 25 th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Canada, the Armenian people donated a bust of Yousuf Karsh to the people of Canada. The bust stands outside the Chateau Laurier at the corner of Rideau Street and Mackenzie Avenue. You can read more on this at: Yousuf Karsh Bust .

Currently, there is no similar monument honouring the career and contributions of Malak Karsh. There is, however, work underway to redress this inequity. You can read the proposal at: Malak Karsh Monument Proposal, and you can get involved or provide your support by contacting Michel Gauthier at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

 Paul Lauzon has recorded the presentation, available via the following link: