Friday, February 13, 2015

Abraham Lincoln - Photos Before & After The Civil War

This photo comparison shows up on Reddit every once in a while. It depicts President Abraham Lincoln both before and after navigating the country through the tumultuous period of The Civil War. But I'm not certain the photos are THAT different.

I am not attempting to mitigate the effects war has on a person. It obviously takes it's toll both mentally & physically. One could even argue spiritually, as some people find faith in a higher power while at war, while others lose it completely. I am just curious if these 2 photos can truly represent, what is intended when posting it.

We have all seen photo comparisons of a President before and after taking office. There is usually a huge difference. Most of these photos span an 8 year period, or two terms. Keeping in mind that the minimum age of a President must be 35, meaning the latter photo is taken, at minimum, when the subject is 43 years old. And that's just in theory since our youngest President, Theodore Roosevelt, was 42 when he took office after the assassination of William McKinley. Roosevelt would serve almost all 4 years of McKinley's term and then go on to win his own election, tapping out at 8 years. He was 50 when he left office. Whether President or not, there's is a markedly difference in one's looks between 42 & 50. If you have not yet hit those milestones, look at photos of your parents. The aging process seems to speed up as one gets older. Dammit.

That's not to say, MANY sleepless nights aren't heavy contributing factors to how one looks in 1901 vs 1909.

ALL that said, back to this photo of honest Abe:

The first photo was taken by photographer (obviously), Matthew Brady on February 27, 1860. It was the day Lincoln delivered a campaign speech at the Cooper Union in New York. A speech that is believed to have helped him capture the White House in the upcoming election. 

The second photo is the last portrait of the living Lincoln, ever to be taken. It was taken on April 10, 1865, a mere week before his assassination. The photo is known to be one of the few portraits that shows Lincoln grinning, which is important in regards to why I don't think the photos are drastically different.

This would be a good time for me to mention, that I am NOT a professional photographer. I defer to all of my photo friends and colleagues as I am merely an amateur with a point & shoot.

The first thing I'd take into account based on these photos differences is the lighting. Lights and their positioning could be a contributing factor to a lot of the darkness and shadow on Lincoln in the second photo . The lights used would have been very different between a photographer in NYC in 1860 vs one in Washington D.C. in 1865. Also, there's no indication in regards to whether natural light was incorporated into either shoot. There's a story of Lincoln "strolling up Broadway" in NYC on the same day the photo was taken in 1860, but no report on whether it was overcast or not. Surely the light in February is wildly different than that of April (says the guy freezing his butt off while he writes this in February).

Then there's the positioning of the subject, himself. In Brady's portrait, Lincoln's collar sits lower than the latter. According to Jeremy Losak 

"Brady instructs Lincoln to draw up his collar to hide his imposing neck and show off his appearance as a whole. Brady’s goal was to make use of Lincoln’s height and make him look like less of a rough westerner and more like a proper statesman."

Whether such instruction was given to Lincoln in 1865 is unknown.
We already know that the second photo is "one of the few portraits that shows Lincoln grinning." 

Go ahead and look in a mirror. Now grin. What changed? Perhaps not a lot if you're 26, but what if you're 56? Do your cheekbones change? Do your eyes appear to sink back a bit? Does your forehead crinkle up? These are all possibilities when one smiles...especially at 56 years old. I'll admit that Lincoln isn't exactly saying "Cheese!" in the photo. But a slight change in the emotionality (<-- NOT A REAL WORD) of the face, at such a close distance for the exposure time needed in 1865 could result in a vastly different look on a person's face.

Finally the suit, beard and haircut are all different. Though, with the exception of the beard, similar. Similar enough to make them seems comparable. But alas, that's a bit misleading. The darkness in the suit in the "after" photo brings out a darkness that is missing from the "before" photo.

In the end, the man had changed profoundly from before he was elected, to after one of the worst periods in the history of our country. He had also buried his 12 year old son Willie in 1862. After which, it is well documented, a sadness fell over Lincoln that would remain for the rest of his short life. I'm just not sure that two photographs, though iconic, are that different on the surface.

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