The First Photo Op: Anthony Berger’s White House Photos of Lincoln

14 Apr

April 26, 1864, Washington, D.C. – A century and a half ago, for the first and only time, Abraham Lincoln was photographed inside the White House, thereby inaugurating, in the words of Harold Holzer, a now “routine White House occurrence — the photo opportunity.”  Francis B. Carpenter, a portrait painter, arranged for and oversaw that session in what is presently called the Lincoln Bedroom. That day he jotted in his diary: “Today Mr. [Anthony] Berger from [Mathew] Brady’s came up and took several pictures for me of Mr. Lincoln in the Cabinet room. Succeeded very well.” Carpenter then enjoyed unfettered access to the Lincolns in the White House and desired more photos of the President to use as studies for his painting that now hangs in the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol – The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation Before the Cabinet (A.H. Ritchie engraving of the painting, Library of Congress, below):

3a05802v LCcrop

To that end, Lincoln posed exactly where the event which Carpenter wished to paint had occurred — by the table in his office/Cabinet Room at which he eventually presented a reworked Proclamation to his Cabinet members on September 22, 1862 before signing it. The proclamation specified that it would take effect on January 1, 1863 in any states still part of the Confederacy. Although Lincoln didn’t remember exactly when he first read the Proclamation to his cabinet – July 22, perhaps? – Carpenter chose to memorialize that event. Nevertheless, his final work product on a canvas measuring 9 feet by 14.5 feet at least represented the creative process resulting in the final document. To view images of the privately owned Lincoln White House photos (or for which rights of any use come with a fee), see:; Harold Holzer’s “Abraham Lincoln’s White House,” White House History No. 25 (2009) at;  Betty C. Monkman’s “Images of the Executive Mansion, 1861-1865,” in Seale, William, The White House: Actors and Observers (2002 ), at p. 68

The photographer who captured these historic views of Abraham Lincoln at the White House was German-born Anthony Berger, then the 32 year-old superintendent of Mathew Brady’s Washington, D.C. gallery. He took the pictures with a four-lens camera he had carted to the Cabinet Room from Brady’s Washington gallery, along with other delicate and cumbersome equipment and chemicals. Lincoln had been photographed twice before by Anthony Berger at Brady’s 352 Pennsylvania Ave. Photographic Gallery of Art, resulting in the creation of several of our most beloved and widely known images of President Lincoln (see examples, below, courtesy of the Library of Congress & the National Archives). As noted by George Sullivan, “thanks to these images  … the face of Lincoln is better known to Americans today than it was in his lifetime.”  Picturing Lincoln: Famous Photographs that Popularized the President (2000), at p. 82. Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert, described the Anthony Berger studio portrait which was later used for the engraving on the U.S. five dollar bill (middle, below) as “the most satisfactory likeness of [my father].”

3a10739r-O-88-by Berger on Tuesday, February 9, 1864  3a07486r-O-92-Portrait used for the engraved bust of Lincoln that appeared on the United States five dollar bill for many years from 1914 to 2007 Landscape

Insufficient sunlight in the White House’s Cabinet Room made photographing Lincoln a significant technical challenge. But Berger overcame this obstacle, somehow making do with the paltry natural lighting from the outer windows. Although the conditions prohibited making photos on par with studio creations, the three Berger photos of Lincoln met, if not exceeded, Carpenter’s expectations. Berger accomplished this despite an unanticipated hiccup. It occurred when the President’s youngest son, Tad, locked Anthony Berger and his assistant out of a closet they were using as a darkroom in the midst of the photographic shoot — and then fled with the key. Abraham Lincoln arose from his chair, left the room to find his son and the key, and later returned to unlock the door. The resulting hoopla probably resulted in the smudging of Lincoln’s face in the only White House photo showing him standing. We know about this — and other events and discussions at the White House — thanks to Francis B. Carpenter’s gem of a book, Six Months at the White House With Abraham Lincoln (1866).

It is altogether fitting and proper that an engraving of Francis B. Carpenter’s The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation found its way onto the original cover of Doris Goodwin Kearns’ book A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, from which was adapted the screenplay for  Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie Lincoln. Just as that movie serves as a modern-day recreation of Lincoln’s push for the 13th Amendment, Anthony Berger’s White House photos of Lincoln represent our only photographic recreation of the birth of the Emancipation Proclamation, which Harold Holzer describes as “the most history-altering document ever promulgated in [the White House]” and Carpenter, the painter, called “an act unparalleled for moral grandeur in the history of mankind.”

Here’s a salute to the 150th anniversary of the first Presidential photo-op, brought to us courtesy of Anthony Berger, Francis B. Carpenter, Abraham Lincoln and son Tad, and the Emancipation Proclamation (Carpenter, below, in a Brady daguerreotype, from the Library of Congress; along with the first page of the Emancipation Proclamation, from the National Archives).

3c10148vc    514_pg01by Craig Heberton, April 26, 2014

(released a few days early due to travel plans)

One Response to “The First Photo Op: Anthony Berger’s White House Photos of Lincoln”

  1. Gregg Klosz June 5, 2016 at 3:52 am #

    In regards to Bergers feb 9 famous 5 dollar photo; I’ve just discovered one of these while sorting thru a bunch of old posters at a clients basement!!!! Engraved and published in 1864 by J.C. Buttre, NY and beautifully bordered by W. Momberger a famous landscape artist who specialized in currency design, sits Lincoln oval centered amidst the artwork depicting a time of turmoil in our Nations history!! At the bottom of this great piece are the words Abraham Lincoln President of the United States; Assasinated April 14, 1865 !!!! Right above this in bold writing A.Lincoln is signed in black ink!! Could someone help me identify this amazing item please, I can send photos if given an address to send to, thanks and wait til
    You see this, bye

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