The Richmond History Podcast

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Polk's Presidential Photos

James K Polk by Brady
It can be a dicey proposition to say that something is "the first" of anything.  It is near impossible to prove something hasn't happened before.  As a consumer of "today in history" lists, I saw a few postings yesterday like this one from the "Today In History" iPhone app from Downshift: 

February 14, 1849
Polk and his cabinet minus James Bucanan by John Plumbe
In New York City, James Knox Polk became the first serving President of the United States to have his photograph taken.

Brady's photo was not in New York where Brady had his Studio at the time, it was in the White House, and it was not the first photo of a serving President.

After repeated requests Matthew Brady was finally granted a sitting with our 11th President on Feb, 14 1849. Brady dragged his camera into the White house and asked what room had the best natural light.1  It was decided that the dinning room would be the best,1  but it was from experience.  On June 16, 1846, painter turned photographer, George P A Healy made three failed attempts at getting a shot of Polk and his cabinet.  He neglected to take into account how dimly lit the White House was before electric lights.2  In frustration, Healy pulled the men and many of their wives outside on the portico and was able to get an image.2  But his wasn't the first either.  Earlier that summer, John Plumbe photographed Polk and his whole cabinet minus James Buchanan.  That photo was taken in the dinning room which was Thomas Jefferson's former office.2  That does seem to be the first photographic image of a sitting president and the first interior photo of the White House.

John Quincy Adams, photographed after his presidency.
Brady's photo does seem to be the first solo portrait of a sitting president.  Polk wrote in his diary on that day "I yielded to the request of an artist named Brady of NY today, by sitting for my Daguerreotype likeness to-day.  I sat in the large dinning room".3  Brady came back two days later and took pictures of Polk, James Buchanan, John Y  Mason and the rest of Polk's cabinet.4  Brady's cabinet pictures were not all in a group but that didn't matter because newspapers could not publish photos in the 1830's, they had to be transcribed through engravings.  Brady sent his photos to Charles C. Bennett the editor of the New York Herald to be converted for publication.

Taken about a month before Polk was to leave office, Brady later remarked, "His face was lined on both sides of his nose and his mouth (was) drawn in a tight line".1  These were makes of the pressure of the office.  Both referencing the wear on the men's faces and the rigidness that more then a minute of sitting still for the exposure required, Bennett quipped, "Why man, do the Washington and his cabinet look like that?  Alas they are dead before my time."1

Polk in fact would be dead in Bennett's time.  In President Polk's list of presidential distinctions, including being the first sitting president to have his photo taken while President,  he holds the less glamorous distinction of having the shortest retirement.  He died of Cholera 103 days after leaving the office at the age of 53.3

John Quincy Adams after his presidency
Brady may have felt that he had a photo curse.  Later that year Brady would photograph Polk's successor, President Zachary Taylor and all of his cabinet. Taylor died the year after.1

John Quincy Adams was the first president to be photographed but it was after his time in office. The best date I can find is 1828 but that seems very early.  Let me know if anyone has a date.

1. Mathew Brady: The Camera Is the Eye of History By Don Nardo

2.The White House: actors and observers By William Seale, White House Historical Association

4. The diary of James K. Polk during his presidency, 1845 to 1849

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