Karsh Signature

Yousuf Karsh, master photographer of the 20th century

Presidents’ Day

Bill Clinton, 1993

Today is the Presidents’ Day federal holiday in the United States which is celebrated annually on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington, the first President of the United States.

Karsh photographed twelve United States Presidents, from Herbert Hoover to Bill Clinton. He also photographed many foreign presidents, and corporate presidents. A free-text search in our Sittings database returns all of them, from a 1936 sitting with Dr. Karl T. Compton, President, Massachussetts Institute of Technology, to Mr. Alonzo L. McDonald, President, Bendix Corporation, 1981.

On Presidents, from Regarding Heroes:

Yousuf Karsh had made formal portraits of all of the American presidents since Herbert Hoover, twelve in all. Now, early in the year 2001, at age ninety-two, he was frail and long retired when the staff of George W. Bush approached him. They wanted to fly the president to Boston, where Karsh had resided since closing his Ottawa studio nine years before. The newly elected leader would be at the photographer’s disposal, they promised, more so than was usual. Mrs. Karsh recounts that the president’s staff said to Jerry Fielder, the twenty-five-year primary assistant to Karsh who was handling the urgent request, that they would even be satisfied with a perfunctory portrait set up by the studio staff if Karsh would just release the shutter. This last effort at accommodation made them seem not only overly eager but also uninformed about what a Karsh portrait entailed.

It is understandable that Bush’s staff was anxious about not getting a sitting with the one photographer who had become a legend by recording those he personally considered to be the shapers of history and culture. To be among those Karsh included in his photographic pantheon and publications was an honor that dignitaries, political figures, and celebrities sought of him to the last days of his career. An additional attraction for Bush’s people must have been that Karsh was not a partisan portraitist, and thus there was an expectation that he would not infuse the image with a personal political judgment, even subliminally.

(Karsh) had become an institution in his own right, someone who was expected to participate in what had grown to be one of the many cultural expectations of the ritual of passage to the presidency.