A new look at Lincoln
Another Lincoln book? Well, why not, given that the Great Emancipator is always a compelling figure. Lincoln, Life-Size, which offers a well-focused, historically rich selection of photographic portraits, was the brainchild of the ever-Lincoln-conscious Kunhardt family, authors of Lincoln: An Illustrated Biography and Looking for Lincoln. This new volume assembles 206 tritone photos taken from 1846 to 1865 and ranging from the youngish (37-year-old) Springfield lawyer to the older Republican candidate for the presidency, through to the final picture of Lincoln alive, taken just two days after his second-term inauguration.
Some of the great classic shots are here, such as those by Lincoln’s primary chroniclers Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner, in addition to Anthony Berger’s portraits that served as models for Lincoln’s appearance on the penny and the (old) five-dollar bill. But there are also notable photos here by lesser-known, even unattributed, photographers, and these are often as interesting and meaningful as the more commonplace pictures. The text for each photo is linked to contemporaneous letters (both from and to Lincoln) and to the current political and personal events surrounding the occasion of Lincoln’s sitting.
Lincoln was quite a celebrity in his time, and he was apparently aware of the promotional value of his photos, especially during his race for the presidency. (Those particular fascinating portraits are sans beard, of course.) The book’s special design angle involves juxtaposing each standard-size photograph with a blown-up (“life-size”) image of Lincoln’s head from the same photo on the opposite page. This certainly brings Honest Abe, with all his distinctive facial characteristics and war-torn wisdom, into starker and sterner relief.
A foreword by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer informatively discusses the provenance of the photos and the race among noted Lincoln photophiles to compile the definitive collection. Philip B. Kunhardt III’s preface, “Lincoln’s Face,” relates how the president was described physically by others and reflects on Lincoln’s own self-deprecating—but rather cheerfully resigned—view of himself, and also offers details about the photographic culture of the era and some interesting specifics regarding Lincoln in the studio. This one’s a keeper, as is everything Lincoln.
Martin Brady is a Nashville-based arts writer who covers theater, opera, ballet, music and books.