Day in History - Abe Lincoln's Last Photo

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This iconic photo of Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner was long thought to have been photographed on this day in 1865, four days prior to his assassination and one day after Appomattox. It was long thought to be the last photograph of the President while still alive. The fact that the glass plate negative cracked before printing was thought to be an omen for the soon to be martyred president. The close proximity to his death gave the photo much greater value and standing. The studio of Gardner never denied the April 10, 1865 date of its being shot, possibly so as not to diminish its value.

However, a recently discovered diary of portrait painter, Henry J Warren, proves otherwise. Warren was to paint a portrait of the President, but Lincoln was too busy to sit still. So Warren had to settle with basing his painting upon the Gardner photo. His diary details the process at the Gardner studio and date of the photo as being February 5th, 1865. Other photos now contend to be considered Lincoln’s last.

Alexander Gardner was a Civil War photographer for Mathew Brady, who later went on to start his own studio. Photography was just catching on with the public. Like television is credited with making John Kennedy President, Lincoln credited his photographs taken by Mathew Brady as being decisive in his election. He stated “Make no mistake, Brady made me President.” Photography let people get a more intimate look at Lincoln and have a more personal connection with him that had not been possible before.

Regardless of the exact date of the Gardner photo, it is still a powerful portrait, showing president looking much older than his age would indicate. The war was winding down. He could now look forward to reconstruction and reconciliation. There was reason for hope. Though it was the convention of the time not to smile for photographs, there was a hint of a smile on the President’s face.