Today, Bowdoin College is set to show off an incredibly rare acquisition—a vintage photograph of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration from 1861. The image, one of only three known to exist, shows a large crowd gathered outside the east side of the US Capitol to attend Lincoln’s swearing-in ceremony.
Maine’s Bowdoin College Museum of Art, which got its hands on the photo at an auction last October, will unveil the photograph later today. It’s thought to have been taken by renowned Scottish-American photographer Alexander Gardner, known for his work during the US Civil War. Only two other copies of this photo exist—one in a Smithsonian Institution collection and the other at the Library of Congress.
This is the first photograph ever taken of a presidential inauguration, and it’s one of the first shots of a so-called “media moment.” According to Bowdoin, the tradition of photographing politicians and other celebrities in public likely began at this very moment.
The sheer existence of this 156-year-old photo is a small miracle unto itself. Photos this old, without proper care, will undergo various stages of decay. Photos, slides, and negatives are made by using chemicals that are sensitive to moisture, light, and changes in temperature. As time passes, these chemicals degrade and the image starts to fade away, typically turning yellow and developing cracks. Other factors, such as exposure to oil, dust, dirt and some gases also contribute to picture deterioration.
The type of camera used to take this photograph is not known, but given the time period, it was likely a camera that used a “wet plate” negative process, an important development that allowed for a theoretically unlimited number of positive prints on paper. Despite the blurry, ghost-like features in the photograph, this method was considered fast at the time, requiring only a few seconds for exposure.
It was also taken at an interesting time in US history. The Civil War began just six week later, and by this point, seven states had already seceded from the Union. The atmosphere in Washington was tense, as rumors were swirling of an assassination plot against the newly elected president. During the swearing-in ceremony, Lincoln called for unity and expressed a desire to address the differences that divided the country.
My, how little political rhetoric has changed over the years.