Errol Morris on the Abraham Lincoln Portraits

I spent the better half of the afternoon reading Errol Morris’s fascinating series “The interminable, Everlasting Lincolns” in The New York Times, in which he sets to establish how the last known photographs (portraits) of Abraham Lincoln came to be. The prologue sets the tone with a vivid dream that Lincoln presumably had a few days before his assassination, but it’s in Part I where Errol Morris comes firing:

The story of the crack, along with the original April 9 date, was printed in The New York Times on Feb. 12, 1922. O-118 was captioned: “The President Sat for This Photograph Just Five Days Before Booth Shot Him. The Cracked Negative Caused it To Be Discarded. It Has Only Once Before Been Published, and Then in a Retouched Form.” The accompanying text by James Young read:

Probably no other photograph of Lincoln conveys more clearly the abiding sadness of the face. The lines of time and care are deeply etched, and he has the look of a man bordering upon old age, though he was only 56. Proof that the camera was but a few feet away may be found by scrutiny of this picture… The print has been untouched, and this picture is an exact likeness of the President as he looked in the week of his death. [10]

——–

This is Errol Morris’s motivation for writing the series:

My fascination with the dating and interpretation of photographs is really a fascination with the push-pull of history. Facts vs. beliefs. Our desire to know the origins of things vs. our desire to rework, to reconfigure the past to suit our own beliefs and predilections. Perhaps nothing better illustrates this than two radically different predispositions to objects — the storyteller vs. the collector.

lincoln-crack

The infamous “crack” photograph of Abraham Lincoln.

For the collector the image with the crack is a damaged piece of goods — the crack potentially undermining the value of the photograph as an artifact, a link to the past. The storyteller doesn’t care about the photograph’s condition, or its provenance, but about its thematic connections with events. To the storyteller, the crack is the beginning of a legend — the legend of a death foretold. The crack seems to anticipate the bullet fired into the back of Lincoln’s head at Ford’s Theater on Good Friday, April 14, 1865.

It should have a name. I call it “the proleptic crack.” 

Errol Morris continues:

Holzer’s enterprise is to weave a context — a story — around photographs and significant events in American history. If Meserve were correct — if Gardner took his photographs of Lincoln on April 10, if the negative cracked just days before Lincoln was shot — it would make for a better story. But that story, like so many “better stories,” isn’t true. 

Part II of the series is here. Parts III and Parts IV will follow soon.

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(hat tip: @kottke)

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