Which American President Was the First to be Photographed?
Hint: He was also the first to marry a woman born outside the United States.
The Past in Color features the work of colorist Marina Amaral, bringing to life black and white photos with color applied digitally.
Farsighted but underrated, John Quincy Adams was a president of firsts. He was the first president not to have been a founding father. The first son of a president to be elected. The first to marry a woman born outside the United States. He is also the first president of whom we have surviving photos: including this one, taken at his home in Massachusetts in 1843, long after Adams had left office—his presidency ran 1825-29—and only five years before his death at the grand old age of 80.
The image was made by a German-born artist named Philip Haas, who emigrated young to the United States but travelled to Paris to learn the art of the daguerreotype. This exciting new technology, the first photographic technique to be made available to the public, emerged in 1839, named for its inventor Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre. It changed the way that humans looked at the world—and at world leaders.
Daguerreotypes were hard to produce—they required the chemical treatment of silver-plated copper sheets, which had to be exposed for a long time, risking image blur. They are technically difficult to colorize, too. Their sheer age means they usually contain a lot of texture, scratches, and visual ‘noise’ throughout the image—often in vital areas such as the face and hands. All this requires a balancing act, in which the colorizer must soften the imperfections without compromising the content of the original photo.
Pictures of presidents are knitted into the fabric of American culture and society. At the start of the Civil War, Demand Notes (the forerunners of federal banknotes) were printed with Abraham Lincoln’s image on them. Mount Rushmore, featuring giant sculptures of Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln, was completed in 1941. Portraits of presidents and first ladies, such as those unveiled this week of Barack and Michelle Obama, make big news, whether they are made on photographic paper or canvas.
Then there’s Presidents’ Day. Originally created in the 1880s as Washington’s Birthday to commemorate the nativity of the first President on February 22, 1732, its purpose has broadened over the years. In 1968 Congress debated renaming the holiday to pay tribute to Lincoln, who was born on February 12, 1809. Although this was never officially adopted, Presidents’ Day is what we talk about today—a public day of rest to pay homage to all 45 commanders-in-chief: the good, the bad and the photogenic.