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Abraham Lincoln, the great orator, writer, emancipator and... social media influencer?

Mr Lincoln Sits for His Portrait is just-published by Macmillan
Macmillan, Harpers Weekly
Mr Lincoln Sits for His Portrait is just-published by Macmillan

As Lincoln himself learned by patient trial and error, every photograph has a point of view revealing some facets of its subject and missing or glossing over others.”

Abraham Lincoln was many things to many people, including an early adopter of his generation’s newest technology. And while he sat (or stood) for only a handful of photos, those images changed the nation’s perception of him, his presidency and ultimately, his legend.
“These photographs came along at a time when photographic reproduction was just becoming very, very widespread. And one of the ways that people formed opinions. You know, Lincoln said that you can't do anything as president unless you have public opinion on your side,” said Andrew Marcus, author of ‘Abraham Lincoln Sits for his Portrait.’.And I think he saw photography as one of the great tools for arriving at that result.
As we approach the 214th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, Marcus visits with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about his new book, the iconic photographs and how Lincoln was one of history’s earliest social media influencers.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition. I'm George Prentice. Good morning. This Sunday will be the 214th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. We are reminded of Lincoln's significant ties to Idaho. It was in March of 1863 that he would sign the act creating the Idaho territory. And we do not have to look too far to see statues of Lincoln, including in front of the Idaho Statehouse, believed to be the oldest Lincoln Monument in the Western US. We are pleased to share that we have just finished reading a new book. “Mr. Lincoln Sits For His Portrait.” Its author is Leonard Marcus, and he joins us this morning from New York. Leonard, Marcus, good morning.

LEONARD MARCUS: Well, good morning to you and very happy to be here.

PRENTICE: I would like to begin, if I may… I would like you to read a passage from your book. Could you read, beginning with, “As Lincoln himself learned…”. Could you read that?

MARCUS: Sure be happy to. “As Lincoln himself learned by patient trial and error, every photograph has a point of view revealing some facets of its subject and missing or glossing over others.The strongest photographs possess the power to crowd out. Competing perspectives become the version of reality that people remember.”

PRENTICE: And indeed those words jumped out for me. Because I think I'm not alone when I when I say my version of Abraham Lincoln jumps from those rare photographs.

MARCUS: Yeah, I mean, photography, especially portrait photography, was very new when he came along. It goes back only to about the 1840s, and he understood before most people that putting his image out in the world in a form that he thought was helpful to him would shape people's perception of him and see him as someone who could lead them.

PRENTICE: Well, we know the name Mathew Brady, but his studio included a chief photographer, Anthony Berger, and that's a new acknowledgment for many of us. And we explore these six portraits taken by Berger… and those are so well known.

MARCUS: Yeah, it was a red-letter day in February of 1864. Burger was in charge of the studio in Washington. There was also one in New York. And the image on the Penny of Lincoln and profile comes from that sitting. The image on our $5 bill comes from the same sitting. So it is the one from the old $5 bill. And so does this wonderful picture, the most intimate one ever taken of Lincoln reading a book to his son, Tad.

PRENTICE: And that is the cover of your book. This photograph in particular really jumped out. Correct me if I'm wrong…Harper's published this photograph shortly after his death.

MARCUS: Well, in those days, you couldn't publish an actual photograph in a newspaper or magazine. The technology didn't exist, so they made a wood engraving. But it was directly based on this image and was a very strong likeness of the photograph. Yeah. And it's shaped the way people's memories of the president who had just died. Presented as a good father. Father to the nation, you know, caring soul.

PRENTICE: Well, paint a picture for our listeners of this photograph.

MARCUS: Well, you see Lincoln sitting almost in profile in a in a chair with a big book that many people thought was the Bible, with his son standing to one side looking down. They're dressed somewhat similarly. They both have gold watch chains on. And it's a  sort of quintessential picture of a caring father sharing a book with with someone he loves, with a child he loves.

PRENTICE: Back to Matthew Brady. We certainly know that name and his legacy. But in your book, we are also reminded of how much of a publicity hound he was.

MARCUS: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's not just coincidence that one of his neighbors in New York at his first studio was P.T. Barnum. The two of them were masters at self-promotion and doing it in the most sort of flamboyant, outrageous way. But Brady had the goods, and when Lincoln came to New York in February of 1860, not yet a candidate for president, but on the cusp of that and made a speech at Cooper Union, which transformed the impression people had of him from country bumpkin to brilliant, razor-sharp mind. He also stopped that afternoon at Brady's studio, had a full-length portrait taken of him that again, had this huge impact. It showed that he was a strong figure. He was not the baboon that his critics were having fun calling him. Not not in the least.

PRENTICE: And Brady even went as far as naming his furniture.

MARCUS: Well, lots of people gave Lincoln gifts and sometimes he gave gifts in return. And he had a chair that came from the House of Representatives, and it was big enough for him. Remember, he was six feet for an unusually tall person for his time, and he decided to give Brady that chair so that when he came when he Lincoln came to the studio, he could be comfortable and, you know, get the most out of the experience. So, it became it became known as the “Lincoln Chair” and everybody. It was another calling card for Brady. Everybody wanted to pose in that chair that Lincoln had had had sat in and had given.

PRENTICE: Just out of curiosity, do you know where that chair is?

MARCUS: I do. When you are writing a biography, you become kind of crazy and relentless about everything. And I tracked it down. It was sold at auction in the 1990s for almost half a million dollars and belongs to a private collector in in Florida.

PRENTICE: There are plenty of private collectors. There is one very well-known private collector, actually, here in Boise. That is a cottage industry. Right? Lincoln memorabilia?

MARCUS: Oh, yeah. I was in Redlands, California, once and was told, oh, there's a Lincoln Museum here. And it turns out it was created by the man who ran the Ellis Island Immigration Center in its heyday. He himself was an immigrant, and he was so grateful to America for having given him this new life that after he made some money for himself and moved to California, he created a museum. And his idea of how to celebrate America was to have a museum about Lincoln.

PRENTICE: You write that for many Lincoln, the man swiftly morphed into Lincoln, the hero Lincoln, the St Lincoln, the Great, yet also the humble president. And much of that had to do with these very few photographs.

MARCUS: I mean, he also had a lot of amazing traits that, you know, that were legitimately remembered. Being a thoughtful man, being a caring man, being a great writer. I mean, one of the things that I love about that photograph of him reading to his son is that it links political power with an interest in literacy and in literature. Very few presidents have made that connection for themselves or for the country. And but these photographs came along at a time when photographic reproduction was just becoming very, very widespread. And one of the ways that people formed opinions. You know, Lincoln said that you can't do anything as president unless you have public opinion on your side. And I think he saw photography as one of the great tools for arriving at that result.

PRENTICE: Well, indeed, this book could well attract younger readers…it's perfect for newer readers, so it cuts across all demographics. It is titled “Mr. Lincoln Sits for his Portrait,” and its author is Leonard Marcus. Congratulations on this.

MARCUS: Oh, thank you so much. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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