Is This The First Photograph Of Abraham Lincoln?

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The face stares at us across time, a haunting patina of sadness clinging to its outsized features. It is a strong, young face—surely innocent of, yet somehow foreshadowing, the bloody future that lay ahead for America.

Its owners say it is the very first photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln, a precious, hitherto unknown sixth-plate daguerreotype made in Springfield at the time Lincoln had risen no higher in politics than the Illinois legislature. Its detractors argue that it is merely a look-alike. Although collectors uncover so-called new and unknown Lincoln photographs with numbing regularity—images invariably proven spurious—this portrait is different. It comes with a pedigree, having descended from the family of the sixteenth President’s own private secretary.

Feature by feature, the subject is uncannily Lincolnesque—even if the overall impression fails to mesh with his known photographs (not surprising, since all but one were taken at least fourteen years later).

The familiar giant ear protrudes like a pitcher handle, and the coarse, carelessly brushed (or, more likely, hand-arranged) hair clumps in spikes at the top and side of the head. The “disordered condition” of his hair, as Lincoln once described it, would cause his wife, Mary, to take a powerful dislike to a later, equally unkempt image and perhaps, too, accounts for the longtime obscurity of this pose.

The nose looks odd somehow—almost glowing. Does it reflect the harsh glare from the unfiltered light pouring down from the primitive photographer’s skylight? Or might it be the sunburned nose of a circuitriding lawyer who traveled endless miles on horseback on the open prairie in search of legal business? The shirt collar is pulled up high, perhaps by the photographer himself, in an attempt to conceal as much as possible of Lincoln’s long, scrawny neck. Yet one can almost see the strong chest muscles beneath the fabric of the vest.

The mouth does look softer than the one in later portraits. But like that in all the known images, it can be made to perform a uniquely Lincolnian trick of nature: Cover one side of the mouth, and the other side curls up in a half-smile; now cover the smiling side, and the other sags in a frown. Is this a coincidence, or as scholars have speculated in explaining the phenomenon in other portraits, the lingering after-effect of a horse’s kick to the child Lincoln’s head—an injury that left him unconscious for nearly a day and may also have caused the eerily roving eye visible in later pictures?

As for the eyes, they look lighter and brighter here than the mournful ones so familiar in later photographs and in the iconic engraving on the five-dollar bill. But harsh lighting may again explain the translucence. Besides, not even Lincoln’s contemporaries could agree on their precise hue, variously described as blue, gray, and hazel (for the record, Lincoln called them gray).

And then there is that ham-sized hand—surely large enough to have once held fast to a flatboat tiller or gripped a rail-splitter’s ax—here tucked Napoleon style into the waistcoat, its identifiable scars (like the thumb injury suffered fighting off attackers during a trip down the Mississippi) frustratingly concealed.

This is the pose the subject holds for the long exposure required by early daguerrean cameras. He tries hard to look dignified, even statesmanlike. It is that laborer’s hand that betrays him. And one cannot help wondering if it isn’t the same hand that, years later, would invariably split open the kid glove his wife vainly hoped would contain it for “proper” handshaking at official White House receptions.

If this is Lincoln, it is certainly the earliest portrait we have of him, or are likely ever to have, since it dates to the very dawn of the photographic era in the West. Joseph Buberger, of North Haven, Connecticut, is a well-known historian of and dealer in antique photographica who has emerged as the picture’s most impassioned champion, calculates its precise date—based on the thickness of the glass and the style of the brass mat that cover it, as well as the design of the small leather case in which the 3½by-3-inch image is contained — as 1843. That year the ambitious lawyer-politician would celebrate the birth of his first child and lament his failure to win his party’s nomination for Congress. At age thirty-four he still lived with his growing family at the noisy Globe Tavern, in downtown Springfield, Illinois. His prospects for the future remained dim. Buberger has traced the movements of several itinerant photographers across the Illinois plains and can place at least two professional camera operators in Lincoln’s hometown in 1843.

Buberger did not end his research there. Using computer-aided overlay techniques developed by his fellow dealer Alien Phillips, he flipped the daguerreotype into a non-mirror image (since the original is a reverse image to begin with) and superimposed it atop known Lincoln photographs, including the first and one of the last. In each composite most of the features lined up perfectly. Finally Buberger sent the image to the Biomedical Visualization Department at the College of Associated Health Professions, University of Illinois at Chicago. There technicians fed their sophisticated computers three known Lincoln photographs from varying eras, and three hundred additional images as well, plus the daguerreotype. The computer spit out all three hundred teasers, clustering the known Lincolns together with the image presented here.