On Copper, Iron, and Glass
by Garry E. Adelman
President Abraham Lincoln — arguably the most famous and most photographed person in the world at the time — is only known to have been photographed roughly 150 times, the vast majority of those as president.
Although most 19th century Americans did sit in front of a camera at least once, very few repeatedly had their photo taken. Even rarer than studio portraits were documentary photos—outdoor scenes that captured actual events, including soldiers on battlefields, men posing in camps, crowded hospitals, bustling city streets, balloon ascents, and raging fires.
Of the roughly forty known documentary photos of Lincoln, only six can be termed as close-up views. All six of these were recorded near the Antietam Battlefield in October 1862.
Studio Portraits of Lincoln
Roughly 90% of all Lincoln photographs show him in a studio setting such as the four views seen here in 1846, 1860, 1864, and 1865. (Library of Congress)
Documentary Photos of Lincoln
The earliest documentary photographs of Lincoln show him outside of his home in Springfield, Illinois, in 1860. (Library of Congress)
Abraham Lincoln is only visible by inference in a series of four images taken at his First Inauguration, March 4, 1861. (Library of Congress)
Lincoln is certainly visible in one photo recorded at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, and possibly in three more photos as well. Here, he is likely just sitting down after delivering his Gettysburg Address. (National Archives, left, and Library of Congress)
Lincoln is visible but generally blurred by motion in the ten photos recorded at his Second Inauguration on March 4, 1865. (Library of Congress)
Documentary Photos of Lincoln: Close-Ups
The only outdoor close-up photos of Lincoln were recorded after the Battle of Antietam in early October 1862. Lincoln toured the battlefield and posed six times for photographer Alexander Gardner, under the employ of the famed Mathew Brady. Here, Lincoln towers above officers and other members of his entourage. (Bob Zeller)
His main aim in traveling to the field was to urge General George B. McClellan to move against the battered but quickly-recovering Confederate army under General Robert. E. Lee. These two views were recorded of the pair in a tent at McClellan’s headquarters. Note the captured Confederate battle flag on the ground at left. (Library of Congress)
Two men that traveled with the President from Washington appeared in at least three of the photos in the series. In both views Allan Pinkerton stands at left with Union General John A. McClernand to the right of Lincoln. (Library of Congress)
The most well-known outdoor view of Lincoln shows him, McClellan and numerous other notable generals at Union Fifth Corps Headquarters. Historian Justin Shaw stands where Lincoln stood on the Stephen P. Grove farm 150 years ago. (Library of Congress, left, and Garry Adelman)
While historians argue about what may be legitimate photos of our 16th president, collectors trying to make their holdings more valuable spot Lincoln in their own photos with great frequency. My favorite was a print of this photograph for sale on eBay in 2002 purporting to show Lincoln in a top hat at the dedication of the Bull Run Monument on June 11, 1865—nearly two months after Lincoln had died! (Library of Congress)