When presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln arrived at Mathew Brady’s New York City studio to pose for a picture, the pioneering photographer left nothing to chance. With cautious planning and the realization that watercolor and ink could enhance the image when it became a print, Brady tamed Lincoln’s often-unruly hair, hid his long neck by having his collar lifted and disguised Lincoln’s wrinkled clothing as something more pristine. Perhaps most importantly, he found the ideal spot for his camera so that he could minimize imperfections while transforming the candidate’s looming height into a sign of power. In a world before digital photo editing, Brady knew how to remake a man long considered homely and oafish. This Lincoln was composed—not a rumpled frontiersman but a gentleman to be taken seriously.

The February 1860 image appeared on Lincoln’s campaign pins, making him the first presidential candidate to use a photographic image in a far-reaching way to boost his campaign, allowing Americans to look straight into his eyes. The photographer later bragged that Lincoln credited his studio handiwork with a large role in his election victory. He quoted the president as saying, “Brady and the Cooper Institute,” the site of an antislavery speech, “made me president.”

In addition to its appearance on the campaign pin, Brady’s image of Lincoln was reproduced as a wood engraving for Harper’s Weekly, used on campaign ribbons, shared by some printers and transformed into photographs on glass called ambrotypes.

Meanwhile, the French carte de visite, meaning visiting or calling card, had debuted in the United States in 1859. The small photos were roughly the size of today’s baseball cards, and they were similarly collected in cherished albums, many of which soon held images of Lincoln. Because of his savvy utilization of his own appearance, Lincoln became the most photographed American of the 19th century, a surprising fact given his relatively short career in the national spotlight during the early years of photography.

An ambrotype based on Brady’s work and made by George Clark of Boston is among the views of 11 presidents at a new National Portrait Gallery exhibition, “Picturing the Presidents: Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes From the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection.” The display opened at the end of May and will remain in place until June 2025. The featured presidents range from George Washington to Barack Obama.

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln, George Clark copy after Mathew B. Brady, ambrotype campaign pin, 1860 National Portrait Gallery

Just as John F. Kennedy showed Americans how a president could use television to campaign and serve as president, Lincoln showed how photos could shape history. And yet, Lincoln himself seemed somewhat befuddled by the wonders of shadow-stealing cameras. When he received a letter asking for a copy of his photo portrait, he told the writer, “I have not a single one now at my control, but I think you can easily get one at New York. While I was there, I was taken to one of the places where they get up such things, and I suppose they got my shadow and can multiply copies indefinitely. Any of the Republican Club men there can show you the place.”

Although the Cooper Union speech, in which Lincoln condemned slavery and defended the federal government’s right to control its spread, is generally credited with helping his run for the presidency, the role of Brady’s work is less clear despite his insistence.

“Of course, Mathew Brady’s going to say that,” says the National Portrait Gallery’s senior curator of photographs, Ann Shumard. He “was the quintessential self-promoter.”

Besides Brady’s claims, no evidence suggests that Lincoln singled out this photographic portrait with allowing him to win the presidency. However, Shumard does not rule out the possibility that Brady was speaking honestly. Lincoln was on the leading edge of a wave as he used small photographs to bolster his political campaign during 1860’s four-man race, which also included both a northern and southern Democrat, Stephen Douglas and John C. Breckinridge, respectively, and John Bell, a representative of the Constitutional Union. Under pressure, Douglas followed Lincoln into the world of photographic campaign buttons.

Photographs were just beginning to reshape political campaigns. Daguerreotypes were the first. A daguerreotype provides a mirror image on a silver-clad copper plate. “It is sensitized by exposing it to fumes of bromine and iodine,” says Shumard. “It’s then placed in the camera, and the plate is exposed.”

When removed from the camera, the plate looks blank, but a picture emerges after it is exposed to fumes of heated mercury. It becomes highly reflective, so it must be held at a certain angle to achieve clarity. These were used primarily between 1839 and 1860. The ambrotype, an “under-developed negative on glass” in Shumard’s words, was introduced in the 1850s. When it was backed by dark fabric or paper, it provided a positive image. Ambrotypes are visibly different from daguerreotypes because they are less reflective, and could be produced more swiftly and inexpensively.

Throughout American history, political campaigns have changed alongside advances in technology, says Claire Jerry, political history curator at the National Museum of American History. “It’s like so many things in society: Somebody figures out how to do something in one area, and then, we transfer it to another,” she says.

While likenesses of presidents changed as photographic techniques advanced, transportation developments made it easier for candidates to take to the road. However, for the nation’s early presidential races, “it just wasn’t considered dignified for a politician to go out and speak on his own behalf,” she explains. Thus, from the late 18th century until the mid-19th century, most Americans’ only opportunity to see a candidate was through paintings or drawings. Today, thanks to social media and other electronic forms of communication, Jerry says, “We now can encounter any and all political figures.”

The National Portrait Gallery exhibition shows how the visages of presidents, including three who were president before daguerreotypes were popularized, have been preserved through what was then revolutionary technology. George Washington is represented by a daguerreotype of a Gilbert Stuart painting. John Quincy Adams, who served in the White House from 1825-1829, can be seen in a daguerreotype taken in 1843 during his post-presidential service in the House of Representatives. That makes him the earliest president to be photographed. Adams’ successor, Andrew Jackson, whose presidency ended in 1837, two years before the daguerreotype was introduced, is seen in an ambrotype of a painting. Later 19th-century presidents on display in photographic form are Martin Van Buren, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Lincoln and Chester A. Arthur, whose portrait dates to 1858, more than 20 years before his presidency.

John Quincy Adams
John Quincy Adams, Philip Haas, half-plate daguerreotype, 1843 National Portrait Gallery

The most recent president to appear in this exhibition is Obama, shown at his 2009 inauguration. Daguerreotype artist Jerry Spagnoli stood among other photojournalists, including the renowned Annie Leibovitz, to capture the inauguration of the nation’s 44th president.

Shumard hopes that seeing the many different representations of the presidents will spark ideas. “I think it’s fun to be able to look at how they were recorded in oil paint or as marble sculptures, with daguerreotypes that date from roughly the same time period,” Shumard says. “How well do they compare and contrast?”

Barack Obama
Inauguration of Barack Obama, Jerry Spagnoli, whole-plate daguerreotype, 2009 National Portrait Gallery; gift of Jerry Spagnoli © Jerry Spagnoli

Campaign paraphernalia featuring a mass-produced portrait of a candidate first became popular during the 1896 campaign of presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. The Democratic candidate, who was only 36 years old, recognized that his Republican opponent William McKinley had a greater national reputation than him. He “specifically wanted to make sure that his face was on a lot of things so people would know who he was,” says Jerry. The invention of celluloid enabled manufacturers to create different kinds of buttons in that campaign, too.

Campaigns and their artifacts have continued to change as candidates have become more mobile and as daredevils broke taboos. Bryan also traveled 18,000 miles in a whistle-stop campaign trip that defied conventional wisdom about the odious nature of self-promotion. Another rule-breaker, Franklin D. Roosevelt, turned radio into a valuable tool and changed political practice in 1932 when he decided to appear at the Democratic National Convention and deliver his nomination acceptance speech in person.

The National Museum of American History houses more than 100,000 artifacts of American political history. “Probably the largest single set would be buttons,” says Jerry, along with “thousands of posters, probably hundreds of bumper stickers, postcards, then all the kinds of novelties and things you can imagine.” Among the oddest are boxes of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese from 1996, sold with some for Democrats and some for Republicans. Each box had a single party label and a cartoon of an elephant or donkey on the front. Other unusual artifacts include soap babies representing the candidates in 1896 and a Woodrow Wilson nutcracker from 1912.

For most Americans when the nation was new, seeing a president’s face would have been unimaginable. Over the years, national leaders have become less distant figures as photography, radio, television and social media brought them into American homes. The 19th-century images in the National Portrait Gallery’s “Picturing the Presidents” exhibition reflect a first step toward closer contact between presidents and the people who put them in office.

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