As an Armenian in Turkey, the young Karsh endured persecution and privation. In 1924, at age 16, he immigrated to Canada, joining his uncle, who was a photographer, in Sherbrooke, Quebec. From 1928 to 1931 he served as an apprentice to a Boston painter and portrait photographer and briefly attended art school. Returning to Canada in 1932, he was employed by an Ottawa photographer, whose studio Karsh leased after his employer retired. He was appointed official portrait photographer of the Canadian government in 1935 and became a naturalized Canadian citizen in 1947.