T.O.P. Ten: Number 3
Given the thousands upon thousands of superb portraits that exist—and the hundreds that are arguably no worse than this one—it may seem "U.S.A.-centric" of me to choose Alexander Gardner's portrait of Abraham Lincoln to stand for all portraits. Yet there are good reasons for the choice, I think. Lincoln's is surely one of history's most interesting faces. He may not have been the first great American to have his portrait taken, but he was the first President to leave such an extensive photographic record of himself, the earliest "great man" who was known well through the medium. Finally (with George Washington and Franklin Roosevelt) he was one of the three most important Presidents in United States history—and like it or not, portraits of important people have more (and more lasting) interest to viewers than portraits of more forgettable figures.
Mathew Brady, for whom Gardner worked in 1863 when this picture was taken, usually posed Lincoln in 3/4 profile. Gardner's picture, which was one of the main references used by sculptor Daniel Chester French for the Lincoln Memorial statue on the Mall in Washington, D.C., is the only known portrait of Lincoln from straight on, looking at the camera. There's no artifice about it anywhere: it's just a frank, plain picture of a man, forthright and direct.
The wet-collodion glass-plate negative of this picture is now in the collection of the Indiana Historical Society (although the fact is somewhat "outside" of the traditional Lincoln legend, he spent his formative years in Indiana, from age seven to 21). It's a surprisingly modest little object.
There can be little doubt that Lincoln, who was one of the most intelligent men ever to be President, surely was the first U.S. President to grasp the modern idea of "the media" in that he knew the value of his photograph as publicity, and of publicity to his leadership and his reputation. The many portraits made of him helped popularize him and even had a mythologizing effect. But still, there is something I find endearing about all those portraits. Lincoln was a depressive and a supreme realist—yet I can't help but feel, in the plain fact of his willingness to sit to have his portrait made so many times, that he was also just a bit vain. It's difficult to keep in mind now, but he was human, after all.
Posted by: MIKE JOHNSTON