By MICHAEL PERKINS
ULYSSES S. GRANT HAS BEEN REMEMBERED AS A MAN OF SEVERAL “FIRSTS”. He has been called the first practitioner of “modern” warfare, utilizing methods that rendered the courtly style of his Confederate foes obsolete. He also was the first American president to pen a purely military autobiography. History students can probably agree on other career distinctions. But in watching the recent excellent History Channel miniseries on his life (based on the book by Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton), it becomes clear that the eighteenth president was also the first to have nearly his entire adult life documented in photographs. In a print world still dominated by illustrations and engravings, Grant was captured on glass plates over three hundred times in the space of about twenty years, twice as often as such luminaries as Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain. In point of fact, Ulysses S. Grant was the most photographed man in the world over the span of the entire nineteenth century.
At a time when most people lived out their lives without posing for even a single portrait, Grant endured dozens of formal “sittings”, caught as well in photojournalist snaps by Matthew Brady’s roving band of Civil War photographers, who pictured him poring over maps, sitting in tent-side conferences with other officers, conferring with his president in both the field and the capitol, attending that same president’s funeral, welcoming visitors to his own White House, resting with family on his front porch. Consider: being photographed in the 1800’s was, for a time, an occasion, a privilege, maybe even an accident. Certainly, Grant was not the first president to have his picture “made”, but the sheer volume of views of him across his public life was a quantum leap from our visual sense of any public figure up to that time. Chernow’s book (and the miniseries) both reckon with the incredible explosion in notoriety wrought by Grant’s roles as both the general who won the war and the president who tried to preside over the peace. And while some of the incredible trove of photo images of Grant can be accounted for by breakthroughs in the technical growth and expansion of photography during his lifetime, the astonishing bulk of it can only be attributed to the fact that Grant was an international celebrity, one of the first in the Industrial Age.
WIthout his realizing it, Ulysses Grant had come along in one of those transformational transition periods in history in which our established way of viewing things is undergoing a convulsion toward something completely different. Photography, in his time, was slowly re-negotiating our relationship to our leaders. They ceased to operate at a distance or as abstractions. They now had features, dimensions, traits brought to us in a new kind of intimacy that only the camera could create. And as films and lenses improved, the stiff formality of a sitting portrait gave way to images of a much more spontaneous, candid nature. The image seen here (which I love) is itself a transitional one. Grant had to remain still long enough for the still-slow exposure times of the Brady corps’ devices, but already he has to remain at attention for a much shorter span that he might have in a studio just a few years prior. The most important element of the pose, however, is a kind of tell about Grant’s priorities. His face seems to say, take the picture already…I’ve got more important things to do.
First paparazzi prez? Hardly. But over the term of his public life, Ulysses Grant may be the first president to be, almost, our public property, a “person of interest” in purely visual terms. As now, sitting (or standing, or running) for a portrait is no guarantee that the truth will make it through the lens. But there are certain times in the history of photography where a pivot point is glowingly obvious, and the weary resignation in Grant’s face is a kind of seismograph of what was to come, for good or ill, for all of us.