How Do You Picture a President?

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George Clark, ambrotype campaign pin of Abraham Lincoln after a portrait by Mathew B. Brady (1860) (all images courtesy the National Portrait Gallery)

How do you picture the president? We might think that many of our olde tyme presidents hearkened from an age that predated photography, but in truth, 39 of 45 of the United States’s top leaders have been captured in a photographic medium. The earliest likeness to survive is an 1843 daguerreotype of our sixth leader, John Quincy Adams, who served from 1825 until 1829. That depiction is one of several displayed in Picturing the Presidents: Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes from the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection, on view at the Washington, DC museum through June 8 of next year. Just in time for the forthcoming election between a convicted felon and a deeply confused old man in the latest installment of our nation’s currently flailing experiment in democracy.

Daguerreotypes were the original means by which images of the President could be disseminated to the electorate. Through a costly process, the technology and its successor, ambrotypes, provided a way to produce a limited number of exact likenesses to serve as the basis for illustrations, campaign materials, and other applications in print media.

This exhibition includes photographic portraits of 11 US Presidents, as well as a few daguerreotypes of painted portraits of presidents who passed away prior to the advent of photography. Included, for instance, is one of George Washington, who died some 40 years before such images were being produced, using Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished 1796 painting.

Martin Van Buren, our eighth president, Millard Fillmore, our 13th, and of course, Abraham Lincoln, our 16th, are also represented here. A half-plate ambrotype of Lincoln taken by William Judkins Thomson in 1858, when the aspiring politician was engaged in a series of debates with Democratic candidate Stephen A. Douglas, is a highlight. Additionally, the exhibition showcases a campaign button based on an image photographer Matthew B. Brady captured of a clean-shaven Lincoln, which proved crucial in building the young lawyer-turned-politician’s public image as he campaigned in 1860.

“The vintage daguerreotypes and ambrotypes in this exhibition are among the treasures of the Portrait Gallery’s collection,” said Ann Shumard, the institution’s senior curator of photographs, in a press release announcing the exhibition. “They offer visitors a unique opportunity to view some of the earliest photographic likenesses of our nation’s presidents.” Indeed, this show is but a small sample of the museum’s expansive collecton dedicated to presidential portraits across a wide variety of media.

It’s easy to forget, in our image-saturated era, that as recently as 150 years ago portraits were rare luxuries in most households. While daguerreotypes have fallen by the wayside with the advent of more accessible and affordable photographic techniques, one artist in the exhibition felt that a legendary recent moment in US history needed to be captivated with the gravitas of that outmoded technology. Modern daguerreotypist Jerry Spagnoli captured the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first person of color to be elected to the nation’s highest office, via the same technology that depicted some of the first people to serve in that role.

Taken in wide format with a view of the packed Capitol steps on January 20, 2009, the blue-tinted sky seems to suggest a new era dawning in US politics. It’s impossible to say what the next election will bring, but it’s hard to imagine a moment as hopeful as that one.

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