Renown for his striking portraits of politicians, dignitaries and celebrities, Yousuf Karsh was a master of studio lighting and portraiture, making him one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century. Yet, it’s his photographs of Ford of Canada employees, illustrating the pride and determination of working Canadians in the 1950s, that he may be most famous for.

Born in Mardin in the eastern Ottoman Empire (present day Turkey), Karsh witnessed the massacre of relatives and neighbours during the turbulent years during and after World War I. At age 16, he escaped to Sherbrooke, Quebec to live with his uncle, a photographer who had his own studio. By 1933, Karsh had his own photography business.

With Karsh’s reputation on the rise, Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King invited him to photograph dignitaries when they came to Ottawa. When Winston Churchill visited the House of Commons in December 1941, at the start of World War II, Karsh captured a portrait of the British Prime Minister that won international acclaim.

His fame firmly established, Ford Motor Company of Canada invited Karsh in February, 1951 to shoot a series of portraits of its Windsor employees. By this time, Windsor had grown to be a giant in the automotive sector, and Ford’s facilities in Windsor included the plant, foundry and technical school, all of which Karsh photographed over two weeks.

Emric (Jimmy) Saska 1951 Set-up Man, Plant 2, Valve Dept. 39
Emric (Jimmy) Saska 1951 Set-up Man, Plant 2, Valve Dept. 39

Karsh toured the facilities, interviewing the employees and hearing their stories, so he himself could retell those stories in a portrait. Often shooting in dimly lit corners of the plant, Karsh used his technical prowess to cast light on the environment and the employees.

The resulting body of work is a stunning series of images which captured the pride and determination of the Ford workers. Each print tells its own story of the bright-eyed, weathered, hard-working faces, proud of their trade and contribution to the community. Prints were made for all the sitters and a handful of images were later used in Ford’s annual report.

More than a half-century later, these images still remain an important contribution to the history of Windsor. A legacy of the determination of a working class community, they proudly remind us of the innovations of the past, in both the auto industry and photography.

Gow Crapper Putting Trim Cord on Rear Window, Trim No. 1 Plant 4
Gow Crapper Putting Trim Cord on Rear Window, Trim No. 1 Plant 4

Late last year, Ford Motor Company of Canada donated Karsh’s body of work from his visit to the Windsor facilities to the Art Gallery of Windsor (AGW) to become a part of their permanent collection, a total of 39 works. Dr. Catharine Mastin, AGW Director, says “This acquisition represents a culmination of many years of partnership and work between the Art Gallery of Windsor and Ford of Canada, and the board and staff of both organizations”.

View Yousef Karsh’s work at the Art Gallery of Windsor during a special exhibition until April 6th, 2014.