Lincoln inauguration photo at Bowdoin College museum depicts nation’s 1st ‘media moment’

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BRUNSWICK — The Bowdoin College Museum of Art has acquired a rare photograph of President Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 – the first presidential inauguration captured on film.

Only two other copies exist: one at the Library of Congress, the other at the Smithsonian Institution, both in Washington, D.C.

Attributed to photographer Alexander Gardner, the beige-tinted photo produced on salted paper depicts a massive crowd at the base of the steps of the U.S. Capitol, where Lincoln was sworn in March 4, 1861.

For Bowdoin, acquiring the photo was an opportunity for the museum to commemorate a turbulent and profound moment in American history, as well as expand its collection of 19th century photography, according to museum Co-Director Frank Goodyear.

Goodyear was previously a curator at the Smithsonian Institution. When he saw the photograph appear at a recent auction, he said, his familiarity with the surviving replicas sparked his interest in acquiring the piece.

“When this image came out of the woodwork, I was really surprised, because I knew how rare these pictures are,” Goodyear said.

The photo will be unveiled in a public event Thursday at 12:30 p.m., in advance of the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration. “Given the light sensitivity of the image,” Goodyear said, “we can’t keep it up for an extended period.”

Lincoln was elected president of a divided America; six weeks after his inauguration, the Civil War began. Fear and anxiety loomed over his transition, and his inauguration was a tense and controversial occasion. Goodyear said the ceremony included heightened security measures for fear of a assassination attempt.

The photo is also significant for marking the first “media moment,” he said.

At the outset of the 1860s, Goodyear explained, camera technology had advanced to where “you start to see a growing number of photographers taking their cameras outside.”

The technology also meant advances in photojournalism.

“(Lincoln’s inauguration was) a real turning point in how we cover public events and public figures,” Goodyear said. “The media moment is sort of born on this occasion.”

Gardiner’s photograph was used as the basis for a woodcarving that created a print for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated, a popular New York weekly newspaper at the time, Goodyear said.

Also in attendance that day was Maine’s Winslow Homer, who created an engraving of the event for Harper’s magazine.

Museum visitors should keep an eye out for an upcoming exhibit about Homer for a chance to see the photograph.

“We anticipate exhibiting it in an upcoming exhibition that we’re having on Winslow Homer’s relationships with photography,” Goodyear said.

Visitors to the museum at 9400 College Station may have a more difficult time spotting Lincoln himself; his famous visage is reduced to a small, yellowed blur beneath a canopy on the steps of the Capitol.

“We’ve taken magnifying glasses to (the photo),” Goodyear said. “Even though Lincoln is tall, and consulting with some other experts, we think we know which one is Lincoln, but it’s just a mere shadow.”

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick recently acquired this rare photograph of Abraham’s Lincoln’s 1861 presidential inauguration, attributed to photographer Alexander Gardner.

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Reporting on municipal, school, and community news in Brunswick and Harpswell. Bowdoin graduate, Wild Oats sandwich-eater. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100, or cferguson@theforecaster.net.