POWER ON THE PLATE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ON JANUARY 13, 2009, BARACK OBAMA, a man of many firsts both personal and political, created a benchmark in the history of photography as well, becoming the first President of the United States to have his official portrait created with a digital camera. Data nerds will note that the exposure was made with Pete Souza’s Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera without flash and settings of 1/125 sec., f/10, ISO 100, and 105mm. In the interval between that time and this, the break with analog film-based photography seems both natural and inevitable, and so the shot has one key thing in common with the very first presidential portrait, in that it was taken using the most advanced technology of its time, changing forever the way we thought of “official” records of the Chief Executive.
One hundred and sixty-six years prior, in 1843, John Quincy Adams, some fifteen years after the end of his presidency, sat for what, today, is the oldest surviving original photographic portrait of an American president. The term original, when speaking of early photographs, must be given a bit of additional context. The process known as daguerreotype was, at the time of Adams’ sitting at Philip Haas’ Washington studio, only four years old. Each photograph was printed directly on glass plates, and were therefore one-of-a-kind images in the truest sense, as no means for printing copies of photos would exist until the creation of negative film by George Eastman nearly half a century later. The fragility of daguerrotypes added to the special quality afforded them as keepsakes in the nineteenth century, as they were quite literally irreplaceable. And then there was the arduous process of getting a usable exposure made in the first place. In President Adams’ diary of the day, he remarked that, upon arriving for his appointment, he found
“...Horace Everett [U.S. Congressman from Vermont’s third district] there for the same purpose of being facsimiled. Haas took him once, and then with his consent took me three times, the second of which he said was very good—for the operation is delicate: subject to many imperceptible accidents, and fails at least twice out of three times.”
Full disclosure: In fact, the very first presidential portrait was taken of the spectacularly unlucky William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office just one month after taking the oath, likely due to complications of pneumonia brought on by failing to dress warmly enough during inclement Inauguration Day ceremonies. Indeed, a photographic portrait was made of Harrison on March 4, 1841, mere days before he fell ill. However, the original of the image is said to be lost, surviving only in copies, while the Adams image, now on display at the National Portrait Gallery, is the very same glass-plate photo taken two years later by Haas. Adams probably deserves the distinction of hanging in the NPG for an additional reason, in that he was one of the primary forces behind the creation of the Smithsonian Institution, of which the Portrait Galley is a subsidiary.
Like Barack Obama, Adams had additional historical mileposts attached to his fame as a photographic subject. Serving in the House of Representatives for many years following his presidency, he was the last living tie to the Founding Fathers, one of the men who, as they sing in Hamilton, was “in the room where it happened”. Photography was lauded, at its birth, as one of the proudest achievements of the Industrial Revolution, but many feared that it might be a merely mechanical medium, devoid of the soul of painted portraiture. And yet, since its very beginnings, it has not only performed a purely reportorial function, but has also anchored us to all ages in a most un-machinelike fashion, preserving the essences of our humanity and allowing us to sing Hail to many a Chief.