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.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
IT WAS PRETTY COMMON, just a few years ago, to find a county fair or amusement park that boasted its own “old-timey” photo booth, a space where families could don historic costumes and pose for a simulated sepia daguerreotype. It was the start of a trend that continues to the digital age, in which the bulky, balky technology of Photography Eras Past becomes romanticized as an effect to be applied to contemporary images. Or, to put it in practical terms, everything old is new again….in an app.
Faking the past via digital doctoring can provide a unique aspect to a newly-taken snap, or it can just produce what I call the “that’s cool” effect, which masks the general purpose of the original and drowns it in gimmicky goop. But the temptation to tweak is strong: apps are cheap (or free) and it takes mere minutes to determine if a given one will add anything to your work beyond mere novelty. One such example is the wide selection of faux tintype emulators available at a click.
The tintype (which was actually exposed on iron plates coated with dried collodion) was never as sharp as its predecessor, the glass-plate daguerreotype, but it was so simple to take and process by comparison that it effectively liberated the camera from the studio, sending field photographers in tented wagons out across the country to shoot every aspect of American life, including, notably, the battles of the Civil War. Eventually paper positives and celluloid film spelled the technology’s doom, but it’s uneven textures and tones continue to evoke a vanished world.
I very seldom use tintype apps after I’ve taken a shot. It seems as if I’m admitting that the image somehow wasn’t enough, that it needed “help” of some kind. I prefer to take pictures from within the app itself, allowing it to use my phone’s camera. The idea is to conceive of the picture beforehand as benefitting from the tintype effect, to pair its “look” with its intention. The tonal range and uneven detail of the tintype can be thought of as another kind of abstraction, and your choice of narrative need not be limited to picturing Uncle Fred as Buffalo Bill. As with so many apps, actual practice can make the difference between a tool and a toy.