Winston Churchill

1941
Photograph by Yousuf Karsh

The strength and power of Churchill’s face stiffened the resolution of the English people.

Peter Pollack, Historian

Winston Churchill

  • Yousuf Karsh
  • 1941

Britain stood alone in 1941. By then Poland, France and large parts of Europe had fallen to the Nazi forces, and it was only the tiny nation’s pilots, soldiers and sailors, along with those of the Commonwealth, who kept the darkness at bay. Winston Churchill was determined that the light of England would continue to shine. In December 1941, soon after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America was pulled into the war, Churchill visited Parliament in Ottawa to thank Canada and the Allies for their help. Churchill wasn’t aware that Yousuf Karsh had been tasked to take his portrait afterward, and when he came out and saw the Turkish-born Canadian photographer, he demanded to know, “Why was I not told?” Churchill then lit a cigar, puffed at it and said to the photographer, “You may take one.” As Karsh prepared, Churchill refused to put down the cigar. So once Karsh made sure all was ready, he walked over to the Prime Minister and said, “Forgive me, sir,” and plucked the cigar out of Churchill’s 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.” Ever the diplomat, Churchill then smiled and said, “You may take another one” and shook Karsh’s hand, telling him, “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”

The result of Karsh’s lion taming is one of the most widely reproduced images in history and a watershed in the art of political portraiture. It was Karsh’s picture of the bulldoggish Churchill—published first in the American daily PM and eventually on the cover of LIFE—that gave modern photographers permission to make honest, even critical portrayals of our leaders.

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