Lincoln's Romance With Photography  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of PBA Galleries.

Abraham Lincoln regularly sat for photos in the late-1850s.  Photography was the new popular art form and he was open.  With his disheveled hair, sunken cheeks, and deeply-lined face people used the word “melancholy” to describe Lincoln’s down in the dumps demeanor in photos.  

The pictures we see of him only half represent him. Being with Lincoln as he told stories Ficklin described a man who fell back into misery when they ended.  He said seeing the two different states in the man side-by-side were dramatic.
— Orlando B. Ficklin, Lawyer

They said what looked like a sad, faraway gaze in Lincoln’s eyes in the beginning ultimately turned into a morbid preoccupation which lasted for hours.  The camera had a long exposure time so Lincoln had to hold his gaze for several minutes.  It wasn’t uncommon for faces in these photos to appear fixed and stern.  But with Lincoln’s photos there seemed to be more going on with the man. 

“The pictures we see of him only half represent him” said lawyer Orlando B. Ficklin.  Being with Lincoln as he told stories Ficklin described a man who fell back into misery when they ended.  He said seeing the two different states in the man side-by-side were dramatic.

Photographer Mathew Brady captured Lincoln with his camera only hours before the presidential hopeful delivered his address at Cooper Union in Manhattan on Feb. 27, 1860.  The photo and subsequent speech did a lot to establish Lincoln in the public’s eyes as a stately political contender.  Lincoln spoke and looked the part of a dignified candidate.  And in some of his photos there was even a hint of a smile.    

“No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New York audience,” reported “The New York Times.”  He was able to “elucidate and convince…to delight and electrify,” they said.  Lincoln returned to Illinois tired but convinced he could get the presidential nomination.

On Jan. 8, 1864 Mathew Brady once again captured a confident and assured Abraham Lincoln on film.  Mass-produced, pocket-size cartes de visite photos helped Lincoln become a familiar personal presence throughout the Union. 

Understanding their importance Lincoln sat dozens of times for photographers.  His photos showcase his arrival in Washington as the new president in February 1861 and extend all the way to the month before his assassination. 

He was touching people visually and with his brilliant use of words. 

The President wasn’t vain but he also wasn’t willing to ignore popular demand for an available likeness of himself.  For people who would never see him personally, it was perfect. 

By February 1865 Alexander Gardner’s photograph of Lincoln clearly reveals the accumulated strain on the president’s face.  Viewing his likeness Lincoln had this to say.

“The Lord prefers common-looking people:  that is the reason he makes so many of them.”

People who dealt with Lincoln said his confidence as a politician didn’t show up as arrogance.  There was no vanity or misplaced dignity about the man.  He is described as being sincere and straightforward. 

On Nov. 17, PBA Galleries, San Francisco, featured photographs and an illustrated  book about Lincoln in its Rare Books and Manuscripts sale.  

Abraham Lincoln  

Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time; by Allen Thorndike Rice;  first edition; clipped signature with extra illustrations; with insertion of over 40 portraits and other engravings; includes 2 Confederate currency notes; plus letter from engraver John Sartain; 1909;  $1,320.

The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln; Frederick Hill; prints made from original negatives; one of 100 copies; 100 mounted photographic portraits; 3 of Lincoln at Gettysburg; 4 of Lincoln’s wife and sons; 24 mounted photos of contemporary politicians, military officers; etc., plus larger photo of Lincoln’s internment;  number 26 of 100 copies; signed by the author;  New York; 1911;  $7,800.  

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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