The Great Lengths Taken to Make Abraham Lincoln Look Good in Photos
One famous image of the president features a body that isn’t his.
BY MICHAEL WATERS JULY 12, 2017
Article from Altas Obscura
Print of Lincoln vs. print of Calhoun PHOTOS: LEFT, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/LC-DIG-PGA-02353; RIGHT, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/LC-DIG-PGA-02499
ABRAHAM LINCOLN HAD A PROBLEM. During his 1860 campaign as a Republican candidate for the American presidency, in an era after the birth of the photograph but before its widespread dissemination in the media, many of the country’s citizens could only guess at what he looked like.
Rumors of his ugliness proliferated. The North Carolina newspaper The Newbern Weekly Progress wrote that Lincoln was “coarse, vulgar and uneducated,” while the Houston Telegraph opined that he was “the leanest, lankiest, most ungainly mass of legs, arms and hatchet face ever strung upon a single frame. He has most unwarrantably abused the privilege which all politicians have of being ugly.”
One woman, Mary Boykin, claimed Lincoln was “grotesque in appearance, the kind who are always at the corner stores, sitting on boxes, whittling sticks, and telling stories as funny as they are vulgar.” In fact, many Democrats sang an anti-Lincoln rallying cry that concluded with: “We beg and pray you— Don’t, for God’s sake, show his picture.”
Though the rumors of Lincoln’s ugliness stayed mostly within Democratic circles, Lincoln was not anxious to let the idea spread. So he turned to Mathew Brady, a well-known photographer with a studio on Pennsylvania Avenue. In many ways, Brady was perfect: though Brady himself had bad vision and did not take many of his own photos, he “conceptualized images, arranged the sitters, and oversaw the production of pictures.” Plus, according to the New York Times, Brady was “not averse to certain forms of retouching.”
In February 1860, just before Lincoln gave the Cooper Union Address that would help secure him the Republican presidential nomination, Brady had Lincoln pose for what would soon become one of the first widely disseminated photographs of the future president.
BELOW: Lincoln Cooper Union photo, 1860
Lincoln Cooper Union photo, 1860 LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/LC-DIG-NPCC-28318