Photographer captured Lincoln for posterity
On June 2, 1860, Springfield residents, who had long been hoping for rain, finally got it, according to the Illinois State Journal. Storms were worst just to the west, where tornadoes killed dozens from Alton to eastern Iowa.
Traveling to Springfield by train from his Chicago studio, photographer Alexander Hesler might have been looking out the window, studying the view of the storm-swept countryside. He was a well-known photographer by then. A photo Hesler took of Minnehaha Falls reportedly inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write his epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.”
Hesler had been tapped by the young Republican Party to take a photograph of its new presidential nominee, Abraham Lincoln. Hesler had photographed Lincoln before, in 1857 in Chicago. The image is famous mostly for the way Hesler tousled Lincoln’s thick, black hair, making Lincoln look as if he had just gotten out of the shower, vigorously toweled his hair dry and then forgotten to comb it.
On June 3, Hesler would take four much better photographs that were to be used during Lincoln’s White House run against Stephen Douglas and two other candidates, John Bell and John Breckenridge.
That day — the birthday of future Confederate president Jefferson Davis — Hesler set up shop at the Old State Capitol, the site of Lincoln’s campaign headquarters. No one knows exactly where in the building the photos were taken, but the governor’s reception room on the second floor is a common guess.
Lincoln would sit for at least four other artists — photographers, painters, illustrators — by the end of the month. His fame rapidly was increasing at a time when photography also was gaining momentum as the preferred way to capture a face. Many historians regard Lincoln as the first president of the photographic age. In any case, Lincoln was photographed significantly more times than any preceding president.
But that didn’t mean Lincoln was an easy subject. Some doubted any artist could ever capture his true physical likeness.
A magazine article written 26 years after Lincoln’s death by his secretary, John Nicolay, argued this point.
According to Nicolay, it wasn’t Lincoln’s awkwardness or ugliness that stumped the artists.
“In his case there was such a difference between the hard literal shell of the physical man, and the fine ideal fiber, temper, and aspiration of his spirit; the extremes were so far apart that no photograph or painting of the former could render even an approximate representation of the latter.”
He went on to describe Lincoln’s “extremes.”
“Graphic art was powerless before a face that moved through a thousand delicate gradations of line and contour, light and shade, sparkle of the eye and curve of the lip,” Nicolay explained, before concluding, “(there) are many pictures of Lincoln; there is no portrait of him.”
Historians, however, tend to agree Hesler produced as true a portrait of Lincoln as any other artist.
“They’re the very best of the pre-presidential Lincolns,” said Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame of Hesler’s four known takes. “The profiles are quite striking. There’s something about the cragginess of the face that comports more with Lincoln the man.”
“It’s a big leap over all previous photos of him,” said James Cornelius, the curator of the Lincoln collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. “What (Hesler) did was to make Lincoln look both calm and serious. In previous photographs — there are about two dozen before this one was taken — he either looks pretty serious or pretty rough, and in two or three he looks like a mild country parson.
“The trick to photography, in which we put so much in store today, really was an art form in the hands of Hesler. He could make the light right and get the wrinkles to come out.”
It probably took a little more than 20 seconds for Hesler to capture Lincoln’s image with the collodion photographic process he used.
Collodion photography was a technological improvement over the daguerreotype — a process that required heating a cup of mercury to create a vapor that helped develop the image. But collodion photography still required many carefully orchestrated steps.
Hesler had to create a makeshift darkroom on site at the Old State Capitol. Before coating a glass plate with various liquid chemicals in a multi-stage process, Hesler already would have seated and posed Lincoln and focused his camera perfectly before inserting the still-wet plate on which a negative would be made.
“They called these people artists,” said Mark Sorensen, president of the Illinois State Historical Society and a student of Hesler’s career. “They’re dealing with chemicals, lens and lighting simultaneously.”
Of Lincoln’s four poses for Hesler, two are considered superior.
In the first, Lincoln is looking to his left. The right side of his beardless face appears leathery, wrinkled and thin. He looks almost casual. His law partner, William Herndon, praised how it brought out the curve of Lincoln’s lower lip and the mole on his cheek.
In the second photograph, Lincoln is looking more forward. You can see both his eyes instead of just the right, as in the first photo. The left eye does not appear to drift, as many other photos revealed it did.
“They are so striking. They radiate a kind of Lincolnian wisdom, a political gravitas,” Burlingame said.
The Republicans quickly sold at least 10,000 copies of these two portraits, for which Lincoln combed his hair and put on his finest clothes. Along with the photograph taken of Lincoln by Matthew Brady at Cooper Union in New York, Hesler’s work helped create a favorable impression of Lincoln among voters across the country.
Lincoln himself is quoted as liking Hesler’s work, especially the frontal shot, remarking “that (it) looks better and expresses me better than any I have ever seen; if it pleases the people, I am satisfied.”
Lincoln had said similar things regarding other artistic renderings of him. Historians say people commonly made such comments, perhaps just to be polite.
However, three months after Hesler’s appointment with Lincoln, a Philadelphia newspaper reporter asked Lincoln why there were so many poor portraits of him.
“It is impossible to get my graceful motions in — that’s the reason why none of the pictures are like me!” Lincoln reportedly said, probably joking about his motions, which were often regarded as anything but graceful.
We have mostly copies of copies of roughly 130 known photographs of Lincoln, taken from 1846 to just before his death in 1865. Daguerreotypes were one-time deals, producing no negatives. To save money, many collodion photographers washed their negative glass plates in acid so they could be reused.
However, George Bucher Ayres, a jack of many trades who bought Hesler’s studio in the mid-1860s, saved the Lincoln negatives from the acid bath — and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Within a few years after purchasing Hesler’s studio, Ayres sold it (before it burned down) and moved to Buffalo, then Pennsylvania, bringing the plates with him.
It took decades for him to do anything with the plates (he apparently forgot he had them for a while). Eventually, he decided to make several “interpositive glass plates” from the original negatives.
Interpositives could be used to make more negatives, which Ayres needed to turn out enlarged Hesler reprints.
The Illinois State Historical Society owns two glass-plate interpositives — one each of the two better Hesler photographs. They are stored in climate-controlled conditions at Bradley University in Peoria.
The Eastman House museum of film and photography in Rochester, N.Y., has one interpositive Hesler plate. Although nearly a third of its plate is cracked in several places, conservators there meticulously glued it back together. The restored plate is on exhibit there until the end of May.
One of the great things about collodion negatives was their ability to produce enlarged photographs without losing the finer details of the originals. Reprints of Hesler’s 1860 Lincolns are often much crisper and cleaner than nearly any other Lincoln photographic reprint.
The state historical society earns a little bit of pocket change selling high-quality Hesler reprints. When Michael Burlingame spoke at the society’s annual symposium earlier this year, he requested two framed versions in lieu of a speaker’s fee.
“We’re extremely fortunate to have such clear, sharp images,” Burlingame said.
After Ayres died in 1905, his two daughters inherited the Lincoln negatives. The negatives sat in storage until after the daughters passed away. Shortly after, a lawyer helping to settle their estate bought and subsequently sold them to William Danforth, founder of Ralston Purina Co. in St. Louis.
On the way to St. Louis, the negatives were cracked in the mail. The lawyer who sent them there ultimately sued the U.S. Post Office and received a $1,000 settlement. The postal agency got stuck with the plates, which is how they ended up at the Smithsonian, where they are stored but damaged beyond repair.
Years later, in the 1950s, King Hostick, a Lincoln collector from Illinois, uncovered the two glass plate interpositives while sifting through the Ayres estate. Upon his death in 1993, Hostick willed them to the state historical society (but not before spinning off his own reprints that continue to turn up on the antique market today).
A few years ago, a Michigan autoworker discovered the cracked interpositive plate now at the Eastman House.
Hesler, who died in Evanston in 1895, lived long enough to see an engraved version of one of his photos prominently featured in Century Magazine’s 1886 introduction to its serialized, 4,700-page biography of Lincoln, written by Nicolay and his White House counterpart, John Hay.
When Chicago photographer Alexander Hesler photographed Abraham Lincoln on June 3, 1860, it wasn’t simply a matter of setting up a camera and pushing a button. Hesler had to set up a laboratory and darkroom first.
Then came the hard part.
Collodion photography expert Mark Osterman, process historian in the advanced residency program in photograph conservation at the George Eastman House, a film and photography museum in Rochester, N.Y., explained the process.
“Hesler would have at least four boxes: one for chemicals, one for the camera, one for processing equipment, the last for sundries,” Osterman wrote in an e-mail to The State Journal-Register. “The chemicals would be iodized collodion (to coat the plate), silver nitrate (to sensitize the coated plate), iron sulfate developer (for bringing out the image), cyanide or hypo fixer (for making the image permanent) and varnish (to protect the surface) … He might have also brought a head stand to immobilize the subject ... but these were heavy.”
It would have taken about an hour for Hesler to set up everything, given that the chemicals were premixed, Osterman said. He would have covered windows with a red cloth to create a safe light to protect the negative glass plate.
“A glass plate was coated with iodized collodion in the daylight, then sensitized in a vertical bath of silver nitrate solution under (the) red light. The wet plate was then exposed in the camera and developed before the collodion coating was dry — thus the term ‘wet plate,’” he said.
After a couple shots to test light quality, the actual shots would last 10 to 30 seconds per exposure. Processing would take about five minutes, with 10 more minutes to wash the negative glass plate with water. The plate then was dried with an alcohol-fueled lamp, then varnished, then heated again to cure the varnish. After letting the plate dry for an hour, Hesler would have placed the plate in a slotted box for storage. Then, he’d repeat this process for each new shot.
The process created a rich photo that captured fine shades of gray. Osterman, who leads workshops on the process, has led a mini-revival of collodion photography.
“Recently, we have been considering approaching the Obama White House with the idea of us doing what Hesler did — bring our collodion equipment to make a portrait,” he said.
Pete Sherman can be reached at (217) 788-1539 firstname.lastname@example.org.