Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Lincoln Life-Size by Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr

Abraham Lincoln was the most photographed man of his age, according to Philip B. Kunhardt III, topping previous record-holders Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. Of the 114 photographs that Kunhardt counts, all but four were taken during a seven year period when Lincoln campaigned for and then served as U.S. president. Many of these are reproduced in original and enlarged sizes in Lincoln Life-Size, a book that I hesitate to call attractive, showing as it does many images of a man who joked about his homeliness. If not attractive, I at least find the book eye-catching.

Many of Lincoln's friends said that he was the ugliest man that they knew, and he used this notariety to get attention. With ill-fitting clothes and uncombed hair, he sometimes resembled future punk rock musicians, which must have made him stand out from pompous political dandies. Lincoln wanted the support of the working man (no women voting in 1860), so this image may have worked well for him poliitically. He did not, however, always court this rough image. With his hair combed, he looked quite respectful. He looked a little like comedian Bill Murray in a May 1860 image taken in Springfield, Illinois by an unknown photographer (page 42). In the February 27, 1860 image by Mathew Brady (page 34), he resembled actor David Jansen of The Fugitive. In the first full beard photo taken by Christopher S. German on January 13, 1861 (page 70), though his ears stick out a bit, he looked no worse than many other mid-nineteenth century politicians, industrialists, or generals.

Four years of war did take their toll on Lincoln, and he looked ancient in photographs from winter and spring 1865. He was only 56 when these last photographs were taken, but the lines in his face were deep. Readers of this book can see that he was as scarred as the still smoking battlefields across the South.

Authors Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr. pair each photograph with an excerpt from a Lincoln letter or other timely document. They hardly needed to bother. The photos themselves replay the story that so many of us already know. Lincoln Life-Size is a book history readers will enjoy.

Kunhardt, Philip B., III, Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr. Lincoln Life-Size. Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. ISBN 9780307270818

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