David Kent's Reviews > The Photographer and the President: Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Gardner, and the Images that Made a Presidency

The Photographer and the President by Richard  Lowry
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it was amazing
bookshelves: abraham-lincoln-library

Richard S. Lowry brings us into the development of Alexander Gardner as a photographer to the president. The title and subtitle suggests a strong interplay between Gardner and Lincoln, and indeed it was Gardner who took many iconic photos of the the president, but these titles oversell what the book is really about - Gardner. Very little is actually said about the interactions between the two men, and in fact it appears there was a professional distance. Lincoln came to the studio (or Gardner came to the field), Lincoln held the poses as asked, and Gardner snapped the photos; then Lincoln went back to work.

That said, the book goes deep into Gardner and the photographs themselves. Lincoln had about 130 photos taken during his lifetime - half between his nomination and death at the end of the war - and Gardner took many of them. It was Gardner as manager and photographer in Brady's Washington DC studio that took the first photograph of Lincoln the day after the president-elect arrived in DC from his arduous cross-country train trip. The exhaustion shows. As time passed Gardner took many more photos and Lincoln became more amendable to the idea, but they never really formed anything other than a professional relationship.

The book touches on Gardner's fascinating history in Scotland and the United States, but in my opinion does so without bringing out Gardner's humanity. Lowry also gives some insight into the process of making photographs, though again only briefly. Gardner's volunteer work in the Topographical Engineers group of General George McClellan's Army is more thoroughly discussed than I've seen in other books on the subject. Lowry makes many literary side trips into a variety of peripheral topics, personages, and events, all of which generally fill out the time periods around Gardner's photography.

Much time is spent on Gardner's iconic photographs from the battlefields at Antietam and Gettysburg. The capture of dead and bloating bodies still awaiting burial brought the brutality of war into people's homes, making it all the more real to even those who hadn't yet lost loved ones. There is critique here too of Gardner's potential staging of the scenes, complete with prop rifles used in more than one image.

It is here that Lowry offers his most important contributions to the literature. Unlike other books (e.g., see Pistor's "Shooting Lincoln"), Lowry repeatedly delves into artistic analysis of the photographs themselves. As just one example, two weeks after photographing the battlefield dead, Gardner returned to Antietam to capture the critical meeting between Lincoln and McClellan. Lincoln effectively decided to remove McClellan from his command, though he waited until the day after the election in November to actually do so. Lowry takes a closer look at two of the iconic photos taken in Antietam by Gardner. He interprets the carefully arranged scene of Lincoln and McClellan sitting in the tent, their knees almost touching as an American flag lays draped over a nearby trunk with a Confederate flag lying ingloriously on the ground. Similarly, Lowry discusses in detail the symbolism of Lincoln and McClellan's poses in the standing group shot - Lincoln's height and McClellan's lack of height obvious among the line of officers. Even Lincoln's slight slouch to rest his hand on a chair while McClellan's arrogant aggressive pose as they stare down each other is analyzed in detail by the author. These sorts of analyses are common throughout the book and indeed give the book a depth not seen in others.

Lowry's book is more scholarly than the aforementioned Pistor book, which may leave many readers with a drier taste in their mouths. That's not to say it is dull; merely not as storytelling in its approach. It certainly is dense with information and contributes much to our appreciation of Gardner and his photographic contribution to our understanding of the war.

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Reading Progress

December 19, 2017 – Started Reading
December 19, 2017 – Shelved
December 19, 2017 – Shelved as: abraham-lincoln-library
December 20, 2017 –
page 19
December 20, 2017 –
page 39
December 21, 2017 –
page 69
December 23, 2017 –
page 88
December 24, 2017 –
page 101
December 24, 2017 –
page 117
December 25, 2017 –
page 139
December 26, 2017 –
page 167
December 27, 2017 –
page 167
December 27, 2017 –
page 188
December 28, 2017 – Finished Reading

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