Portrait of a Master

On 9/23, the Museum of Fine Arts will debut an exhibit of works donated by acclaimed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, before his death in 2002. During his celebrated career, which was bookended by stints spent living in Boston, he created iconic images of Churchill, Einstein, Picasso, Queen Elizabeth II, and every U.S. president from Hoover to Clinton—as well as a few subjects he found closer to his sometime home.

Library Subject, Early Portrait (1929)

A lot of Karsh’s subjects were legends, but the woman who posed for his first-ever portrait was an unknown—and still is. He found her at the Boston Public Library. "He was so nervous, he forgot to ask her name," says Karsh’s widow, Estrellita, who still hopes to identify the woman.

John H. Garo (1931)

Garo was a Boston society photographer and Karsh’s mentor; he sent Karsh out to educate himself at museums, and taught him printing techniques and how to use a camera. The young Karsh also learned that a photography career could be glamorous, even if his apprenticeship was not: During Prohibition, he was tasked with making bathtub gin to serve to Garo’s clients and friends.

John F. Kennedy (1960)

The president-elect’s beatific gaze isn’t directed skyward; it’s at Lyndon B. Johnson, who had just walked into the room. And the necktie? It’s Karsh’s; he disliked the one Kennedy wore. After JFK’s assassination, this image became the cover of Life‘s memorial edition.

Robert Frost (1958)

"Don’t make a saint of me," harrumphed the poet, shown in his Cambridge studio. But Karsh knew how to work his subjects: He’d research their lives, and sometimes have dinner with them the night before. The two men spent the shoot chatting about T. S. Eliot and the United Nations.

Estrellita Karsh (1970)

Karsh took this portrait of his wife on her 40th birthday. He’d snap her on a whim or when testing a lens—a contrast to his formal sessions with subjects, which were precisely lit and could go on for hours. Estrellita now lives in the Back Bay, and is an arts philanthropist.

Self-Portrait (c. 1952)

Karsh held 15,312 sittings in his career, but rarely took self-portraits. "He used to say, ‘Nobody likes their own pictures,’" Estrellita says. "He did them because he had to, because people wanted them. But he didn’t have the same feeling as when he took pictures of someone else."