Hockey aside, Canadians have always been rather bad at myth making. Part of it is the (relative) absence of heroic violence in the national saga, and the corresponding dearth of dramatic moments. Part too is our taste for subversive irony. Cherry tree-chopping George Washington might never tell a lie; our founding father pukes over the side of podiums, before cleaning himself up enough to accept a railway bribe.
That makes it intriguing to follow Maria Tippett in Portrait in Light and Shadow: The Life of Yousuf Karsh (Anansi) as she deconstructs a familiar cultural moment. It’s Canadian lore that “The Roaring Lion,” Karsh’s photograph of a glowering Winston Churchill taken on Dec. 30, 1941—a portrait that became iconic for both men—was achieved by the unknown 33-year-old photographer having the audacity to snatch Churchill’s cigar from his lips seconds before clicking the shutter.
Yes and no. Karsh was far from obscure, at least in Ottawa. Prime Minister Mackenzie King was a patron and arranged for Karsh to set up his equipment in the Speaker of the Commons’ Chamber while Churchill was still receiving congratulations for his “some chicken, some neck” speech to Parliament. King even personally steered his British counterpart to the chamber, although it soon became apparent to Karsh—with Churchill’s irritated “What’s this, what’s this?”—that the one thing King had not done was inform Churchill of the sitting.
Churchill grudgingly agreed to one photo. Karsh knew he had to move fast. When his polite “Sir, I have an ashtray all prepared for you,” had no effect, Karsh grabbed the cigar himself. After his initial anger, Churchill, buoyed by the reception to his speech and the fact the Speaker had already lit him another cigar, decided to be amused by Karsh, and let him take another shot.
So far, so legendary. In a real myth, Karsh would have known instantaneously what he had. But it seems he liked the second, smiling portrait best, though he soon caught on to the fact the rest of the world begged to differ. The scowling photo represented Churchill for the rest of his life, and after: it was reproduced on front pages around the world to announce his death in 1965. A final Canadian touch? Mackenzie King immediately set up a new session with Karsh for himself, and adopted the same pose. The results, alas, were less Churchillian and more, uh, King-esque. Another, very Canadian, myth in the making.