Among the Most Powerful and Moving Images of Character Ever Achieved by Portrait Photographers

20 Apr

Historian David Hackett Fischer is probably best known as the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Washington’s Crossing (2004) about George Washington’s leadership in 1776 leading up to the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, as well as Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989).

His most important work on how imagery has shaped the history of America is Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas (2005). Perhaps that book’s finest chapter is entitled “The Long ‘Shaddow’ of Abraham Lincoln; a Living Symbol of Liberty and Freedom in the Camera’s Eye.” In it, Fischer notes that “one of Lincoln’s political strengths was his skill in the manipulation of imagery, including his own image.” Lincoln immediately was put to the test following his presidential election as a dark-horse candidate by the challenge of overcoming the vicious invectives and unflattering cartoons and other imagery hurled at him by adversarial members of the national and international media.

For example, the British illustrated magazine Punch

“used caricatures of Lincoln’s features to attack him as an incompetent fool, a cowardly bully, a dishonest lawyer, a primitive clown, and a party hack. The assault continued to the hour of Union victory and the moment of Lincoln’s assassination. Then suddenly a chastened editor of Punch issued a public apology:

Yes, he had lived to shame me from my sneer,
To lame my pencil, and confute my pen —
To make me own this hind of princes peer.
This rail-splitter a true-born king of men.”

1862-10-18 Punch-ABE LINCOLN'S LAST CARD OR, ROUGE-ET-NOIR  1864-11-19 Punch blackdraftMED1

One key instrument which Lincoln applied to combat the attacks on his intellect, competence, judgment, integrity, and fortitude was “the camera’s eye, which he was among the first to use in a systematic way for political purposes.” Liberty and Freedom at p. 342. Lincoln evolved from referring to sitting for a portrait as having had his “shaddow” taken to quickly understanding the exploitative power of posing in the studio of an expert photographic artist in a way which constructed and projected his own image first as a man suited to the presidency and then as an executive capable of forcing the seceding states back into the Union.

“As the war went on, the president’s demeanor showed growing strength and steadiness. The line of his jaw suggested firmness of purpose, and the set of his eyes showed a clarity of vision in this extraordinary man. His appearance increasingly displayed qualities of character, integrity, and moral leadership that were the source of his greatness.” Ibid. at pp. 346-347.

The means by which this was accomplished primarily resulted from Lincoln’s visits to Alexander Gardner’s and Mathew B. Brady’s photographic studios in Washington, D.C. in 1863 and 1864. During those pilgrimages, Lincoln:

“had many portraits taken by Alexander Gardner and Anthony Berger, two very able portrait photographers. Both were attentive to the qualities of character that increasingly appeared in Lincoln’s face and used every trick of their art to make them more evident. In 1863 and 1864, Gardner and Berger made much use of tight close-ups. Gardner was known for his path-breaking work in the use of photo-enlargement. Berger was highly skilled in the manipulation of light. Both men used these techniques to emphasize the facial lines that Brady had removed by retouching in 1860. They also set the camera below the plane of Lincoln’s head to create a monumental feeling and reinforced the shadows above his eyes to add depth and texture to the face.

The results are among the most powerful and moving images of character that portrait photographers have ever achieved. One of them was a photograph of Lincoln by Alexander Gardner after the battle of Gettysburg, in the period when the president was writing his address. Lincoln appears full face. The camera is very close and slightly below the sitter’s head. The features are dark and worn. The face of Lincoln is an image of pain and worry and exhaustion. At the same time one is made to feel the presence of a strong resolve to see the struggle through to victory [below, courtesy of the Library of Congress].

LC 3a53289r

“[Prior to] the fall of 1864, with a critical election at hand, Anthony Berger created an image of Lincoln as a wise and experienced leader, with an aura of growing strength and confidence. But the deep lines and shadows are still there and are made more visible by the photographer’s technique” [emphasis added]. Ibid. at pp. 347-348.

O-92 LC-B8175- 3-X

Professor Fischer is one of the few historians to realize the artistic genius of Anthony Berger and to ascribe credit to both Berger and Gardner for fashioning visual images of Lincoln as a strong, but deeply sympathetic leader. This imagery helped win Lincoln the overwhelming faith, trust, and loyalty especially of the vast majority of Union soldiers in the field as well as their votes in numbers necessary for his re-election in 1864. The same imagery has gained in symbolic power and scope as the years have passed following Lincoln’s death.

“All of this appeared in the great photographs of Gardner, Berger, and Brady during the last year of the war. They carefully created the image of Lincoln that still lives in the hearts of the American people. The war-ravaged face of this man became the image of the nation’s greatest leader and the symbol of its largest cause. It was also a new vision of freedom, with a depth of sympathy for the suffering of others. Even today one can ‘scarcely look at it without crying.'”

Ibid., at p. 348.

Craig Heberton, April 20, 2015

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