vintage, nostalgia and memories


June 25, 2017

The First Photographs of U.S Presidents

Photography is the result of combining several different technical discoveries. Long before the first photographs were made, Greek mathematicians Aristotle and Euclid described a pinhole camera in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE.

The coining of the word "photography" is usually attributed to Sir John Herschel in 1839. It is based on the Greek φῶς (phōs), meaning "light", and γραφή (graphê), meaning "drawing, writing", together meaning "drawing with light".

Here, below we collected some of the first photographs of U.S Presidents in history:

John Quincy Adams: The First Photograph of a President

The first photograph of a sitting United States president was taken of William Henry Harrison on March 4, 1841. The new executive had just delivered his inaugural speech—the outdoor address now most remembered (wrongly) for giving him the pneumonia that would kill him—and he paused, afterward, to pose for a portrait using the new technology of the daguerrotype.

That photograph, much like its subject, had an unexpectedly short tenure. Harrison's inaugural portrait has since been lost to history -- meaning that the oldest surviving photograph we have of an American president depicts a chief executive after his presidency. There are a couple candidates for "oldest." But they are, regardless, depictions of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, in office from 1825-1829.

One is this, a sixth-plate daguerrotype made of the ex-president at the age of 76:


Another is this one, of the same man, taken around the same time:


The second image seems to have been captured at Adams's home in Quincy (formerly Braintree), Massachusetts. Beyond that, and the fact that it was taken by Philip Haas, not much is known of its provenance.

In a diary entry dated Aug. 1, 1843, Adams described posing for the photograph during a visit to New York. He was 76 at the time the photograph was taken.

After he delivered a short speech at Utica Female Academy, the former President commenced: "The shaking of some hundred hands then followed and on my way returning to Mr. Johnson's, I stopped and four daguerreotype likenesses of my head were taken, two of them jointly with the head of Mr. Bacon -- all hideous."

For us, the story here is the photographs. The first among so many! The trailblazers, the pathfinders! For Adams, however, the story was emphatically not the photos. It was the trip itself—the memories it evoked, the pain it caused, the joy. We might care about the images of him that emerged from New York, some of the first fully life-like renderings of an American president. We might care that a copy of one of the images turned up in an antique store, where it was bought for 50 cents. We might care that the same copy is now housed in the National Portrait Gallery under the care of the Smithsonian. Adams had different concerns, though—less historical, more human. He wasn't thinking about new technologies. He was just living them.

A 1970 news report announcing the finding of the Adams daguerrotype, accompanied by an ad for a water-weight reducer. (AP / Google News)


James K. Polk: The First Photograph Taken of a President While in Office.

On the other hand, if we’re considering photographs taken in office, that distinction goes to James Polk, the 11th President. This photograph was captured in 1849:



James Buchanan: The First Known Photograph Ever Taken at a Presidential Inauguration

The 1850s were a significant period of growth in the history of photography. The wet collodion process, which was invented in 1851, gave photographers the ability to make direct contact prints from a glass negative. This process did have its difficulties — a portable darkroom was needed to accompany the photographer and long exposures were still often necessary. But the new process was enough of an improvement that it allowed photographers to document many landmark events for the first time, and the period saw photographic milestones ranging from the first war photography to groundbreaking nature photography.

And, in 1857, the first known photograph of a Presidential Inauguration was captured.


This image, seen above, was taken by John Wood, who worked for the Architect of the Capitol under Montgomery C. Meigs. According to a presentation given by Wayne Firth (retired Senior photographer at the Architect of the Capitol) in 1996 at the National Building Museum at the U.S. Capitol, Meigs, who was in charge of the construction of the Capitol at the time, hired Wood as a “photographic draftsman” for the building of the Capitol. His job was to photograph the drawings of the construction so they could be easily duplicated.

During Wood's tenure at the Capitol, his job grew. And, when Meigs was put in charge of constructing a platform for the Inauguration ceremony, he also constructed a platform for Wood to set up his camera and photograph the inauguration of James Buchanan on March 4, 1857.

Photographer Wood would eventually leave his post at the Architect of the Capitol and go on to photograph in the Civil War. According to the Library of Congress, Wood worked for the Architect of the Capitol from 1856 to 1861 and then moved onto photographing maps in the war for Gen. George McClellan.Little is known of his later life and works, but his legacy will live on forever with this photo.


Barack Obama: The First Official Presidential Portrait Taken With a Digital Camera


This picture of Barack Obama is the first official presidential portrait ever taken by a digital camera. It was shot in the Oval Office back on December 6th, 2012 by official White House photographer Pete Souza, with a Canon 5D Mark III.

When it comes to critiquing official portraits, "You can look at it as a photograph and value it on its own merit, but you also have to look at how it's being used and what its purpose is," says Elisabeth Biondi, visuals editor at The New Yorker. "It's going to be used widely and has to appeal to a very wide audience."

Here, Obama's new snap fits the bill.

"You look at the flag on the left side, you look at the tie, which is red, white and blue, and you look at the seal on the flag - all of that gives the message of 'America,' which is very patriotic," Biondi says.



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