Yousuf Karsh’s Portrait of Ernest Hemingway

Yousuf Karsh was one of the most respected and acclaimed photographers of the twentieth century. Fascinated by “greatness,” he aimed to capture the essential character of his sitters, instilling them with both charisma and dignity in his nearly 60-year career. Karsh had studied the Old Masters, specifically Rembrandt and Velázquez, and learnt about the rudiments of composition and lighting. His portrait of Ernest Hemingway exemplifies the theatrical lighting that came to define his style, the profile of his sitters often illuminated by his multiplicity of flood, spot and background lights.

When Karsh went to photograph Hemingway at his home, Finca Vigía, near Havana, the writer was still suffering from the injuries caused by a plane crash during a safari in Africa. Karsh went to La Floridita, Hemingway’s favourite bar, the evening before the sitting to sample the writer’s drink of choice, the daiquiri. Karsh recalled that the next morning, when Hemingway asked him if he wanted a drink, Karsh said, “daiquiri, sir”, to which Hemingway replied, “good God, Karsh, at this hour of the day!” Hemingway told Karsh, “I don’t drink while I write, for you cannot write serious stuff and drink.” Hemingway wanted to be photographed wearing a sweater, after he had seen Karsh’s photograph of Einstein wearing one. The resulting photograph of Hemingway shows him to be both dignified and distant, as he seemingly appears out of the infinite darkness behind him. Karsh described him as having a “peculiar gentleness” and also as “the shyest man in the world.” Hemingway committed suicide four years after the photograph was taken.

Explore More


Featured catalogue essay: ‘Turning Points’ by Helena Lee


Harry Callahan and the Bauhaus


Reflection: Valérie Belin interviewed by Catherine Troiano