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Who is in the Oldest Photograph of a U.S. President?

By Jules Ebe on July 4th 2013

John Quincy Adams – Earliest Photo of a President of the United States

This picture of John Quincy Adams turned up in an antique store, where it was bought for 50 cents. The same copy is now housed in the National Portrait Gallery under the care of the Smithsonian.

Adams was the sixth president of the United States, serving for four years between 1823 and 1829. He also served as an American diplomat, Senator, and Congressional representative.

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In a diary entry dated Aug. 1, 1843, Adams described posing for the photograph during a visit to New York. He was 76 at the time the photograph was taken.

After he delivered a short speech at Utica Female Academy, the former President commenced ‘The shaking of some hundred hands then followed and on my way returning to Mr. Johnson’s, I stopped and four daguerreotype likenesses of my head were taken, two of them jointly with the head of Mr. Bacon –

‘all hideous’ and ‘too true to the original’.

That description of photography was common during the time (though the term ‘photography’ was not yet coined) . Before daguerreotypes, a person would rely on a portrait miniature, usually painted in gouache, watercolour, or enamel, as a personal memento of someone’s likeness.

Artists would sometimes “enhance” the desired features of the subject. If you make someone look good, you are likely to get repeat business.

The daguerreotype was not so forgiving, and as a highly detailed and sharp single frame image fixed to metal, it left little room for manipulation. From his description, I assume former Mr. President would have been a huge fan of retouchers.

A 1970 news report announcing the finding of the Adams daguerrotype

A 1970 news report announced the finding of the Adams daguerreotype, accompanied by an ad for a water-weight reducer. This discovery, alongside written documentation of the event, makes it the earliest confirmed photograph still in existence.

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Less is known about this image, also taken in 1843, at Adams’s home in Quincy (formerly Braintree), Massachusetts by portrait photographer Philip Haas. Though it is in better condition, it does not earn the coveted spot of first confirmed photograph of a U.S. President.

Until Next Time . . .

Stay Inspired ~ Jules

About

is a Southern California based Conceptual Artist and Photographer. Her work has been featured in several print publications and selections can be seen in local gallery exhibitions. Connect with her on Facebook and Google+.

2 Comments

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  2. Peter Nord

    J.Q. Adams was on a trip west to speak at the dedication of the Cincinnati observatory in 1843 when he had his image made, see: http://virtuallibrary.cincinnatilibrary.org/lib/19/137/R977_199_qV85.pdf

    The observatory is visible in this daguerreotype pano, the oldest know photo of an American city, made in 1848: http://1848.cincinnatilibrary.org

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