How One Photo Changed the World

Well, okay it wasn’t just the photo – it was a little bit of retouching too.

Changed the world?!?!? Really?

Read the story and form your own opinion:


By Matthew Brady - This photo changed the course of history

In February 1860 Abraham Lincoln, a country lawyer and Illinois State Representative, began his run for President of the United States. He was a brilliant political strategist, spellbinding speaker, engaging humorist and by all accounts… a frighteningly tall and gaunt man. When he took the stage at the Cooper Union Building in New York City to formally begin his campaign there were gasps by members of the crowd. Some reporters described him as ugly in their original notes, but omitted that impression in their printed account after being won over by his speech.

Some time later, at another event, a heckler called Lincoln 'two-faced'. Lincoln's reply was, "Sir, if I owned two faces, do you really think I'd be wearing this one?" It was evident that Lincoln was aware of the effect his appearance had on people, but he was determined to overcome it through his humor and statemanship.

The craft of photography was new in 1860 and it was quite the rage. Not every voter could see the candidates in person, so they read their speeches and occasionally saw photographs of them. In many rural locations an actor with a good speaking voice was hired to read speeches while large photos of the candidates were displayed.




Of the four candidates running for the presidency, Lincoln was the least photogenic due to the deep lines in his face, his long neck and his deep set eyes. When we see these images of Lincoln now, we’re touched by them because of his legacy, but before he accomplished great things the Edward Bardwell photo (left) and the Butler Preston Photo (right) were not well received.

Lincoln’s principle rival was Stephan A. Douglas, a much more full bodied and prosperous looking man who had been photographed by Matthew Brady (below). Brady always carefully posed his subjects, used soft lighting, and retouched his photos to reduce wrinkles and frown lines. By any measure, Lincoln looks emaciated in comparison to Douglas, and much of the difference is heightened by the lighting. It was evident right from the start that a solution had to found to enhance Lincoln’s image or his chances to become president would be dashed.


As chance would have it, Matthew Brady had taken a good photo of Lincoln (Large photo at top of page) about an hour before he made his first campaign speech at the Cooper Union. Lincoln was freshly shaved, properly dressed, well lit and smartly posed. As was his policy, Brady used a metal reflector to fill the deep shadows under the subject’s brow. Brady had pulled Lincoln’s collar up to make his neck appear shorter and probably instructed him to put his shoulders back to make his chest and abdomen look fuller. The photo was skillfully retouched to minimize the facial lines, which also helped to make Lincoln look less gaunt. Brady was selling the photo in the form of small‘Vista’prints, along with photos of Stephan Douglas and the other candidates.

We don’t know exactly when Lincoln saw the image, or what his exact reaction was, but the Brady photo soon replaced all of the previous Lincoln photos. The public reaction to the new Lincoln image was quite positive. More than one viewer noted that Lincoln’s hand was resting on a book presumed to be the bible, which was something that Brady had not done in the Stephan Douglas photo.


By Matthew Brady - taken shortly before Lincoln's death. Used for the five dollar bill.

As the campaign progressed, Douglas traveled widely and vigorously campaigned for himself while Lincoln appeared less frequently and distributed his best photo and printed speeches. Many historians agree that Douglas over campaigned and it hurt him. By the time Election Day came, there were countless small Brady made vista photos of Lincoln in circulation and far fewer of Stephan A. Douglas. Lincoln’s media blitz, powered by Matthew Brady’s photo, influenced the election and set the course of America for the turbulent times to come.

So I ask: Would the world have been different if Matthew Brady had not done such a good job posing and lighting Abraham Lincoln?

Next question: Are you going to take a photo that changes the course of history? Maybe the 300 graduation pictures you do in your studio, or the portrait of your granddaughter, will appear in the pages of Time magazine in 2020.

Conclusion: You are making history.


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