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The Face Of Lincoln

July 2024
1min read

Compiled and edited by James Mellon
201 pages, $75.00

No face is better known to us than Lincoln’s, and so it might seem that this big volume—containing all 120 existing photographs of him, interspersed with quotations from his writings and from those who knew him best—would be a flossy redundancy, gotten up for the Christmas trade.

Instead, it is a triumph. Lincoln knew the value of publicity: he had his picture taken at least 136 times. Sixteen of those poses have long since vanished, and all but 29 of the rest exist only in imperfect form—as second-, or third-, or fourthgeneration copies, faded, retouched, or otherwise abused by time. It was Richard Mellon’s good, simple notion to track down and meticulously reproduce the finest example of each surviving portrait before it, too, disappears. The book is large (each page measures 113/8 by 14½ inches) and the painstaking printing, supervised by Professor Richard Benson of Yale, is superb.

Lincoln, wrote his law partner, was “cold, precise and exact"; so were the cameras that captured him. In this book we see him, almost for the first time, as a real human being, with all the mythologizing words out of the way. He is at once shrewd, self-contained, ambitious, tough—just the sort of man to meet and master the worst crisis in our history.

The earliest portrait was made in 1846, the year Lincoln first went to Congress. He is every inch the eager young office seeker: neatly dressed, dandified even, his hair gleams from brushing and only his enormous hands betray his awkwardness. By the time his last photograph was made by Alexander Gardner in the victorious spring of 1865, the big, blunt features that seem grotesque in so many intervening pictures have somehow been gentled and his expression softened to near sweetness. This book is an ideal gift for anyone interested in photography, in Lincoln, or in the great war whose ghastly passage may be read across his face.

—G.C. W.

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