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Gold-framed medallion ambrotype of a man in a suit, front and back

Abraham Lincoln by George Clark (active 1853 - 1860), Copy after: Mathew B. Brady (1823? - 15 Jan 1896) / 1860, Ambrotype campaign pin / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Picturing the Presidents: Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes from the National Portrait Gallery’s Collection

May 31, 2024 - June 8, 2025

The birth of photography in 1839 provided a new means of recording and disseminating likenesses of America’s presidents. The first photographic method used for this purpose was the daguerreotype, which yielded mirrorlike images remarkable for their detail and sense of immediacy. Portraits of presidents past, present, and future soon emerged from the studios of daguerreotypists such as Southworth & Hawes and Mathew Brady. When the ambrotype process began to supplant the daguerreotype in the mid-1850s, it provided another means of capturing presidential likenesses.

As one-of-a kind objects, daguerreotypes and ambrotypes of the presidents enjoyed only limited circulation. Yet by serving as the sources for popular prints, newspaper illustrations, and campaign ephemera, these images reached countless Americans who could never have hoped to see their president in person.

To mark the 2024 presidential election year, this exhibition features some of the earliest photographic images of eleven men who attained the nation’s highest office. Dating from 1843 to 2009, these daguerreotypes and ambrotypes are joined by three of the popular prints they inspired. Taken together, these portraits spotlight the role played by early photography in introducing Americans to their presidents.

This exhibition has been made possible through the generous support of Ronnyjane Goldsmith.

Daguerreotype: A direct positive image produced on a sensitized plate of silver-coated copper.
Ambrotype: An underexposed photographic negative on glass that appears positive when viewed by reflected light against a dark background.
Lithograph: A print made by drawing directly onto stone with a greasy medium and chemically treating the surface, so the ink only adheres to the image.

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