Lincoln left his legacy through the lens


Photogenic: The nation's 16th president wasn't camera-shy, and the cameras rarely shied away from him.

February 11, 2002|By Martin D. Tullai | Martin D. Tullai,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When he gained the White House, Abraham Lincoln - born on Feb. 12, 1809 - became America's first widely photographed president.

With a face that seemed to delight photographers, Lincoln sat for 31 different cameramen on 61 occasions. It is believed he posed for more than 130 pictures. At least 126 separate photographs survive. Thirty-nine of those are beardless.

The smallest photo of Lincoln measures about one-eighth of an inch wide, the largest about 18 1/2 inches by 20 3/8 inches. Ninety-four poses are seated, only four are full-length, while but one existing picture shows the assassinated president in state. Twenty-four were registered out of doors.

For many years it was believed that the first photographic likeness of Lincoln was probably taken in 1846 when he was elected to his sole term in the U.S. House of Representatives. But American Heritage magazine reported in its February-March 1994 issue that what may be an even earlier portrait had surfaced in Pittsford, N.Y. However, while purportedly made when Lincoln was 34 years old in 1843, it has not been validated as authentic.

Most of the likenesses of the Illinois "Railsplitter" date from the last seven years of his life - from 1858 to 1865. Beginning with his debates with Stephen A. Douglas (1858) requests for pictures grew steadily. By the time he became president, the demand was exceedingly heavy. The last scheduled pictures of Lincoln were taken by Alexander Gardner on April 10, 1865, four days before he received the fatal wound from which he died the next morning at 7:22 a.m.

The best picture of Lincoln was undoubtedly produced by Matthew B. Brady, the country's foremost portrait photographer, on Feb. 27, 1860. While in New York to deliver his Cooper Union Address - which was warmly received and highly lauded - Lincoln was taken to Brady's gallery the afternoon before the evening speech. True to his reputation, Brady turned out a photograph that has been called "a work of art" - but only after this skilled craftsman retouched the negative of the beardless Lincoln to correct the left eye tendency to rove upward and eliminated the harsh lines from his face. The finished product showed a handsome and statesmanlike figure.

While not so impressed with the picture at that time, Lincoln later said that the Cooper Union speech and Brady's photograph "were the forces that propelled him into the White House." (Lincoln also favored a likeness shot by Alexander Gardner in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 9, 1863.)

Clean-shaven until he was 51 years old, Lincoln was influenced somewhat by Grace Bedell, an 11-year-old girl from Westfield, N.Y. She wrote to him on Oct. 15, 1860, that he should grow a beard. She suggested that it would give him "a look of distinction." Lincoln's response was noncommittal, but he did feel that some might see it as a "piece of silly affectation."

But whether Grace Bedell triggered the idea or it came from his advisers, by mid-November, Lincoln was letting the beard grow. And so it was that three weeks after his election, the earliest known likeness of Lincoln with a beard began circulating.

The earliest photograph of Lincoln the president was made sometime between his inauguration and June of 1861.

It is unfortunate that Lincoln's best-known speech - the Gettysburg Address - has but one picture recalling the event. And this is not of Lincoln delivering the two-minute, 272-word address, but simply a shot of the speakers' platform with the president barely discernible.

A sometime user of reading glasses, Lincoln was shown in only one photograph wearing the aid. This is the 1864 picture showing him ostensibly explaining some features of a book to his son Tad. Actually, it is a photograph album that was used as a device to bring them together. Lincoln told the journalist Noah Brooks, regarding the pose, that he was afraid "this picture was a species of false pretenses."

He feared that "most people would suppose the book a large clasped Bible." Brooks noted that Lincoln's anxiety lest somebody should think he was faking Bible reading with Tad was "illustrative of his scrupulous honesty."

Lincoln accepted the representation of himself in the pictures rather matter-of-factly. With typical self-effacement, he wrote to his cousin, Harriet Chapman, in 1858, about a likeness he had enclosed: "This is not a good-looking photograph, but it's the best that can be produced from the poor subject."

There is no original group photograph showing all the members of the Lincoln family. Those showing the family together are composite pictures of reproductions of paintings. Nor was Lincoln ever photographed with his wife. This is probably because of the 12-inch difference in their height.

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