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April 13, 2014

Here's the First Known Photograph of Presidential Inauguration, March 1857

Today’s inauguration was filled with smartphone snapshots and selfies, but nearly 160 years ago, while the U.S. Capitol was still under construction, the first known photo of a presidential inauguration was taken as James Buchanan was sworn in as the 15th president of the United States.

Inauguration of James Buchanan, President of the United States, at the east front of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1857. (Montgomery C. Meigs Papers—Library of Congress)

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

The photograph was taken by John Wood, who worked for the Architect of the Capitol under Montgomery C. Meigs. According to TIME, 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.

(Image: Library of Congress, via TIME)



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