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Churchill: A Tale of Two Pictures

On the 53rd anniversary of the death of Winston Churchill, let’s enjoy a vignette from Iconic Photos that describes how Yousef Karsh took the Great Man’s picture:

It was one of the most famous portraits ever made [below left]. 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 [right], was less memorable.

Churchill Scowl Smile Comp.jpg

Winston Churchill has held a special place in my heart and mind since my boyhood.

Addendum: The Darkest Hour movie offers a bravura performance by Gary Oldman, but it fails at a key moment, perhaps the key moment, when it shows Churchill finding his inspiration to continue the fight against Hitler rather than negotiate with Germany, as several other members of the War Cabinet counseled him to do. According to John Lukacs, Churchill did not waver, as the film shows him doing; his ultimate resolve came from deep within his character, from his longheld first principles, from his soulful sense of history, and from a thoroughgoing and accurate mistrust of Adolf Hitler — not from a fictitious subway scene through which the film seeks heavy-handedly to exalt the common people and not Winston.

Addendum: A senior member of the faculty writes in:

Everything you say about Churchill’s resolve is correct. But you unnecessarily slight the film and its screenwriters. While there is no record of Churchill’s doubts about his policy of absolute resistance, how could such a thoughtful individual, and one often plagued by his own “black dog” of depression, not momentarily waver in his convictions? Furthermore, as director Joe Wright remarked at Telluride last year following a screening of “Darkest Hour,” the film’s stirring subway scene seeks to reveal a deeper truth: that Churchill both nourished and drew on the fighting spirit of the British people. “Darkest Hour” blends history and imagination in a thrilling portrayal. The film and Gary Oldman’s performance (not to say that of his make up artists) fully merit their Oscar nominations.


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