Note: This post originally appeared on JPROF.com in 2009 and has recently been updated.
One of the most famous photographs of Abraham Lincoln was taken by the noted photographer Matthew Brady on February 25, 1860 in New York City.
It was the afternoon before Lincoln delivered a famous speech at the Cooper Union that evening. The photo was reproduced widely during Lincoln’s campaign for the presidency that year and later became known as the Cooper Union portrait.
Lincoln later said the photo and the speech he gave that night “made me president.”
The photo is certainly a striking one and presents Lincoln very favorably. Lincoln had the reputation of being a rough-hewn Westerner. This picture shows him as something else — a handsome and rather elegant, serious man. He is youngish but not too young. He is smoothly dressed, but he’s not a dandy. In the picture he looks serious and thoughtful, ready to take on the responsibilities of a nation torn apart by the issues of abolition and slavery.
If this photograph is the one that most people saw during the presidential campaign, it is little wonder that Lincoln gave it a good deal of the credit for getting him elected to the presidency.
But is this what Lincoln really looked like?
Lincoln is the first president of whom we have quite a number of photographs (though not nearly as many as we have of modern presidents, of course). Many of these photographs have been studied carefully, and many inferences have been made about Lincoln because of them. Some have even tried to discover what diseases and illness Lincoln suffered from through these photos.
A close examination by a lay viewer, however, reveals how different Lincoln looked in each of his photos. The photos on this page were all taken within a two year period, from 1858 to 1860. These were photos taken before Lincoln grew a beard (something he did after his election but before his inauguration). Take a close look at each one and note the differences.
What are the differences that are obvious?
Why do you think there are such differences?
What does each photo tell you about Lincoln?
What if one of these photos had been widely distributed during the 1860 campaign rather than the Cooper Union portrait? Do you think Lincoln would have been elected president?
And what does this examination tell you about photography? We tend to think of the camera as a completely objective instrument — one that “never lies.” But the camera can see profoundly different things about the same subject.
The camera may not lie (most of the time), but it can tell different stories. And it matters very much who is using the camera.
Update: My friend Guy Hubbs, noted historian, writes this:
With regards to your website, you need to have a look at a succinct and penetrating look at the Lincoln photographs: “The Long ‘Shaddow’ of Abraham Lincoln: A Living Symbol of Liberty & Freedom in the Camera’s Eye,” in Liberty and Freedom by David Hackett Fischer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005): 341-348. Fischer goes into some detail comparing the 1857 February 28 Hesler photo of Lincoln with the intentionally dishevelled hair to the elegant 1859 February 27 Cooper Institute photograph–both manipulated for political effect.
(Posted Feb. 19, 2005)