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Portraits Of A President

December 2023
4min read

The picture any President presents to the public is unlikely to be the picture he himself sees. It may not even be the picture seen by those who are closest to him. Neither the camera nor the typewriter is apt to make a wholly accurate portrayal—partly, no doubt, because the White House is inevitably a distorting glass whose images are always subject to a certain amount of retouching, and partly too because any human being, whether he be President of the United States or the humblest voter in a remote precinct, is always a good deal more complex than is commonly realized.

Anyway, it is hard to feel sure that we are seeing any President as he really was, and the amount of exposure a President gets does not help very much. By design or by accident, an image is created, usually fairly early in the game, and what comes later tends to conform to it. We ourselves, as spectators, even help make it conform; we have our own notion of the man, and we are likely to cling to it, discarding bits of evidence that do not fit our preconceived pattern.

There is available now a remarkable collection of pictures of one of the best-known of all American Presidents, Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln in Photographs , compiled by Charles Hamilton and Lloyd Ostendorf and containing, as far as the authors are able to determine—and they have spent years in careful search—every existing photograph of the man. In all, 119 separate photographs of Lincoln are reproduced here; good pictures and poor ones, pictures wholly familiar and pictures nobody but specialists ever saw before, the sum total actually providing something of a new look at the man. It is of course possible that other pictures do exist somewhere, and from time to time one or another of them may come to light, but at the moment this is the most complete collection there is, and succeeding years are not likely to add much to it.

It goes without saying that the book is wholly fascinating, and it contains a few minor surprises.

It is a little surprising, for instance, to see how many photographs of Lincoln there actually are. The camera was a fairly new device when he was in the White House, and it was cumbersome. There was no corps of White House news photographers because news photographers in the modern sense did not exist. No man could take a snapshot then; every picture was a time exposure, and most pictures were taken in the studio, carefully posed and lighted. Today a President can hardly put his head out of the front door without being photographed, but it was very different in the 1860’s. Indeed, one of the minor surprises here is the comparatively large number of pictures made out of doors, some of them entirely unposed.

Most of the pictures, of course, are studio shots, and some of the less familiar of these are extremely interesting. The best of them tend to come before Lincoln got into the White House; the public image had not been wholly developed, and there was less compulsion on the photographer’s part to make the man look like what he was supposed to look like. There is, for example, a photograph made apparently in Decatur, Illinois, in the spring of 1860, showing a clean-shaven man looking into the camera, and this picture does not give us the legendary Lincoln. This one shows a very hard man indeed, a man who could be ruthless and tough, using other men and then discarding them once they had served his purpose. The “real” Lincoln? Well, part of him: the trouble is there were so many real Lincolns that it is hard to pin one down.

Now and then the retouchers got to work, with disastrous results. One virtue of this book is that here and there it shows an original photograph alongside the retouched version, proving clearly that the Madison Avenue gambit was known in the sixties even though Madison Avenue then had not really been invented.

The earlier pictures, in short, tend to show a man who came up the hard way, a veteran of Illinois politics and of prairie life who carried on his face the relief map printed by what he had been, done, and lived through. It becomes easy to understand the remark of a London newspaperman who looked at an 1860 picture and said that it showed “an honest old lawyer, with a face half Roman, half Indian, wasted by climate, scarred by a life’s struggle.”

Lincoln in Photographs: An Album of Every Known Pose , by Charles Hamilton and Lloyd Ostendorf. University of Oklahoma Press. 409 pp. $19.50.

The biggest struggle, of course, lay ahead, and many of the pictures made after Lincoln got into the White House are oddly disappointing. The “hard lines in his face,” mentioned by an old-time friend, tend to vanish; what we too often get is a picture that conforms to the legend of the brooding, kindly, love-everybody President. One reason for this is fairly simple: it took time to make a picture then, and the man who was being photographed had to hold a fixed expression, sometimes for as much as a minute. As a result, a man who was being photographed posed. He had to pose; there was no other way to do it; but the picture was apt to show the pose rather than the man.

Mrs. Lincoln, as the authors of this book point out, once remarked that when Lincoln went to the studio he put on his “photographer’s face,” not because he was trying to strike an attitude but simply because that was the way the camera worked then. So something essential is missing. We have no picture of Lincoln laughing, although laughter was a vital part of him; we have nothing that catches him unaware, and we think of him as one always melancholy, sad, with features set in a mold. An acquaintance called the turn on this: “His large bony face when in repose was unspeakably sad and as unreadable as that of a sphinx, his eyes were as expressionless as those of a dead fish; but when he smiled or laughed at one of his own stories or that of another then everything about him changed; his figure became alert, a lightning change came over his countenance, his eyes scintillated and I thought he had the most expressive features I had ever seen on the face of a man.”

That Lincoln the camera never caught, and we are the poorer for it. There are some pictures, however, which seem to have something a little different. There are a few full-length pictures, and some that show the man seated in a straight-backed chair, which give us a new view: a long, lanky man, muscular, craggy of features, with long legs, knobby knees, and big feet, a man who down within was as hard as all the rocks in the western mountains, tenaciously pulling the nation along to victory in spite of all the odds.

Yet by and large one finishes an inspection of these pictures—as one finishes his study of almost everything the man’s contemporaries wrote about him—wishing that one knew what Lincoln really looked like. The legend wins. We have this simulacrum of Lincoln, built up by the writings of worshipful men, sustained by innumerable photographs of the kindly, sad, warmhearted President, and we look at and for someone who was not always there. Where is the Lincoln we do not really know? Here and there, in this wonderful collection, there is a hint, but it is never much more than a hint. Perhaps the Presidency itself puts a veil over a man. Perhaps we never can be sure that we understand the man in the White House.

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