The recently re-published book The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln reveals an extraordinary collection of images of the U.S. president who ushered in the abolition of slavery. And these stark black-and-white shots from the mid 19th century not only chronicle Lincoln’s life but also show the development of photography in its earliest forms. What’s more, the following 20 rare photos all give us a unique view of both the creation of the modern U.S. and one of its greatest leaders.
Taken in 1846, this is the oldest authenticated photo of Abraham Lincoln – and one snapped before he grew his trademark beard. The image was shot by Nicholas H. Shepherd in Springfield, Illinois, when Lincoln was in his late 30s. It also sees him still near the beginning of his political career. Not long before he sat for this portrait, in fact, Lincoln had won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
While still with no beard but with decidedly unruly hair, Lincoln sat for Alexander Hesler in this 1857 photograph. Prominent newspaperman and politician Joseph Medill had accompanied Lincoln that day and witnessed one moment that suggests the future president was already thinking about his public image. Specifically, Medill recalled that Hesler had tried to tidy up Lincoln’s hair at one point. However, the then prairie lawyer ruffled it again before the picture was taken.
This portrait, showing a smart-looking and still clean-shaven Lincoln, is used on the cover of The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln. The image was captured in June 1860 and is a print from a lost negative. Even more interestingly, the picture appears to have been substantially retouched to make Lincoln look younger. It’s an early example, then, of image manipulation.
J.C.F. Polycarpus von Schneidau was the photographer for this 1854 picture, captured in Chicago when Lincoln was 45. And that year would provide one of Lincoln’s most important moments of his political life thus far. As fans of the president likely know, that October he made the famous Peoria Speech, in which he presented a detailed case for the abolition of slavery.
This June 1860 photograph is yet another by Alexander Hesler and was again taken in Springfield, Illinois. And Lincoln was a particular fan of this rather distinguished shot. Indeed, in a rare comment about one of the many images made of him during his lifetime, he said of it, “That looks better and expresses me better than any I have ever seen; if it pleases the people I am satisfied.”
Yet again, this photo of Lincoln was taken in Springfield, Illinois, where he practiced as an attorney. The image was captured by Preston Butler at his studio in 1858 – another momentous year for Lincoln’s political career. In particular, it was during that period that Lincoln took part in historic debates on slavery with political foe Stephen A. Douglas.
This image, also taken in 1858, was masterminded after photographer Abraham M. Byers approached Lincoln in the street. And that moment came on the same day as the end of the famous William “Duff” Armstrong case, in which Lincoln had defended Armstrong against a charge of murder and ably won his acquittal. But Byers nearly didn’t get his shot. Indeed, Lincoln was initially reluctant to pose for the snapper because the white suit that the future president was wearing was dirty.
Many of the images in The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln portray the man looking somewhat somber. But gaze carefully at this photo taken in 1858 by Samuel G. Alschuler in Urbana, Illinois, and you’ll see a suppressed smile on Lincoln’s face. That’s because of the amusement that resulted from Lincoln borrowing Alschuler’s coat for the sitting. That garment turned out, moreover, to be “a quarter of a yard” too short in the arms.
This photograph of Lincoln, which clearly shows the mole on his right cheek, was taken in 1859. It was shot at the Cooke and Fassett studio in Chicago by Samuel Fassett. And, perhaps to the photographer’s relief, it passed muster with one very important woman. As Cooke later wrote, “Mrs. Lincoln pronounced [it] the best likeness she had ever seen of her husband.”
Lincoln looks every inch the eminent statesman that he had become by 1860, when Mathew B. Brady took this photograph. What’s more, it was taken on the very day of Lincoln’s Cooper Union Speech. Famously, that event saw Lincoln insist that Republicans should oppose slavery on moral grounds. And both the speech and the picture are said to have propelled him into the running as a presidential candidate. Indeed, Lincoln himself would even go on to comment, “Brady and the Cooper Institute made me president.”
This highly historic image is believed to be the first photo taken of Lincoln after he became president. Yet despite its significance, the location of the snap and its photographer remain unknown. Its date, however, is a little more certain: it would have been taken between March and June 1861. Still, the lack of detail surrounding its origins hasn’t hurt it. In fact, what has been called “the most valuable Lincoln photo in existence” was bought for $206,500 at an auction in 2009.
In Alexander Gardner’s 1862 picture here, Lincoln poses with General George McClellan after the Battle of Antietam, fought near Sharpsburg, Maryland. It was a victory for the Union, against the Confederate forces led by General Robert E. Lee, but one that came at great cost. In fact, the battle was a ghastly bloodbath, with more than 22,000 soldiers from both sides killed, injured or disappearing. And the president and McClellan weren’t pals for long, either. The general’s failure to pursue the defeated Confederate troops contributed to Lincoln sacking him later in the year.
This is another of Gardner’s pictures taken after the Battle of Antietam, with Lincoln facing the considerably shorter General McClellan. Gardner was a Scotsman who arrived in the U.S. in 1856 and soon made his name capturing the ravages of the U.S. Civil War. A few years later, he would also take gruesome pictures at the hanging of four of the conspirators involved in Lincoln’s assassination.
In yet another Alexander Gardner photo, Lincoln is depicted next to a tent that housed the U.S. Secret Service. The soldier to Lincoln’s left is Major General John A. McClernand; the man in civilian dress, meanwhile, is Allan Pinkerton. Like the photographer, Pinkerton was born in Scotland. And, after his immigration in 1842, he became the founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. During the Civil War, moreover, he ran the Union Intelligence Service and cannily thwarted a plot to assassinate Lincoln in Baltimore.
This photograph shows Lincoln with two of his most trusted aides, John Hay and John Nicolay. And like many others, it was also taken by Alexander Gardner – this time in 1863, two years after Lincoln had assumed the presidency. Hay and Nicolay were pretty crucial to the president, too, given that they were responsible for much of the day-to-day running of Lincoln’s administration. What’s more, the two additionally occupied powerful positions as the president’s gatekeepers.
This striking profile shot of Lincoln was taken by Alexander Gardner in Washington, D.C., in November 1863. Partnered by his brother John, Gardner had opened a studio in the city earlier in the year. And that business venture had come after some important but harrowing work by the snapper. In particular, Gardner’s 1862 photographs of the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam held great significance. That was because they were among the first images to expose the public to the dreadful realities of warfare – and not least because some featured gruesome depictions of Confederate dead.
This unusual, almost action shot-like portrait of the president was part of a series photographed by Alexander Gardner in 1863. It was taken at Gardner’s Washington, D.C., studio, as Lincoln had given his word that he would be Gardner’s first subject there. And, true to his word, he visited the gallery on a Sunday. That day was chosen, moreover, in order to evade “curiosity seekers and other seekers.”
Mathew Brady took this photograph of Lincoln in 1864 – the year that he successfully stood for a second term as president. And despite the combined workload of running the country and campaigning to continue his job, Lincoln still made time to sit at least three times for the photographer that year at Brady’s Washington studio. Like Gardner, Brady had come to prominence because of his many photographs of the Civil War.
In this image, The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln shows a different side to Lincoln from the stern statesman so often portrayed. He’s seen here with his son Tad, the youngest of his four children. Rather adorably, Tad was nicknamed as such because he was “as wiggly as a tadpole” as a baby. And the February 1865 photo is made all the more poignant by the fact that Lincoln would be assassinated just two months later.
However, perhaps the saddest image of the president in The Photographs of Abraham Lincoln is this. That’s because it’s the last photo taken of him before he was murdered by John Wilkes Booth in April 1865. And while his assassin initially escaped, he was eventually tracked down and killed by Union soldiers 12 days later. Eight of Booth’s co-conspirators were also found guilty for their part in the plot, and four of them were executed.