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A thousand words: Photography in the Lincoln era

Lincoln was not the first president of the United States to be photographed, but he was the first to be photographed many times, and not only in the portrait studio. His photo archive makes him a modern figure, a celebrity. His short presidency happened just at the time when photography first became straightforward and reliable. Many of the Lincoln photographs were taken by Scottish-born Alexander Gardner. It was Gardner who took the magnificent photograph of Lincoln on 6 November 1863 at his fashionable studio in Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC. But it was Gardner who also made photographs of Lincoln visiting Civil War sites and, after the assassination, took the extraordinary picture of the co-conspirator Lewis Payne held in custody at the Navy Yard.

Later he caught the distant but terrible view of the assassination executions, a photograph that stands at the head of a photojournalistic line stretching through toTiananmen Square. Add also to this Gardner’s fuzzy picture of the crowd on the afternoon of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, taken almost exactly one hundred years to the day before the assassination of the 35th president in Dealey Plaza, Dallas.

Each one of these images was caught in silver salt in a film of collodion spread on a glass plate. The silver image was a negative, from which many positive prints could be made. This was the new, dependable and greatly superior method of photography that had largely displaced the earlier daguerreotype. Collodion was a transparent coating used to bind the light-sensitive crystalline particles of silver bromide. It was made by dissolving gun-cotton in an ether/alcohol solvent, the same gun-cotton that was to be used as the explosive in the shells of all the wars of the late nineteenth century, and that was made from the cotton of the southern states.

The physicist Lawrence Slifkin called silver photography a miracle. What he meant was that some Goldilocks physics and chemistry was at work in the tiny crystals of silver bromide. As a result, a single photon of light (a gleam from Lincoln’s button shall we say) leaves a minute and invisible footprint in a silver bromide crystal, a speck of a few silver atoms. This is Slifkin’s miracle, the ‘latent image’, which can later, at leisure, be developed by chemical treatment. The dots which are the invisible specks can be joined to produce a photograph. And the single negative image can be used in turn to produce unlimited positive prints. So we have photography as we know it. From Alexander Gardner, we go directly to the movies, to photojournalism, to Kodak and mass photography, democratizing the image.

Lincoln portrait Public domain. Held by Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/96522529/
Lincoln Portrait, by Alexander Gardner. Public domain. Held by Library of Congress.

For more than 100 years, silver bromide was at the heart of all this. Then, over twenty years, it disappeared, replaced by digital image-making, nothing to do with silver. When Bunker Hunt cornered the world silver market in 1980, Hollywood was alarmed as much as the Fed, and urgently demanded movie producers to leave less film on the cutting-room floor. In 1979, two-thirds of US silver production went to photography. By 2013 it was less than one-tenth, and falling fast. The disappearance of silver photography is one of the greatest of technological mass extinctions.

More than half of the life history of silver photography happened without the benefit of scientific theory. It turned out to understand  what happens when a particle a light, a photon, strikes a particle of silver bromide needed a bit of Einstein. So it was not until 1938, eighty years after Gardener and Lincoln, that the Bristol physicists Ronald Gurney and Nevill Mott wrote the landmark scientific paper which explained it all. The theory was an early example of applying quantum mechanics to chemistry. When the back-of-the-envelope calculations were done, it was clear how Goldilocks was at work. The sequence of atomic processes which lay between the arrival of the photon on the photographic plate and the development of the silver speck which it produced were ‘just right’ at every stage. In the century of silver photography there were many technical developments but nothing ever replaced silver bromide at its heart. Silver photography made the image-rich world of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and its discovery was one of the most pervasive and transformative events in the history of materials.

Featured image credit: Lewis Payne (co-conspirator), by Alexander Gardner. Public domain. Held by Library of Congress.

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