Oldest Known Photo Of A US President Is Found

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The oldest known photograph of a U.S. president has been found. John Quincy Adams had his photo taken in March 1843, and the image carries an auction estimate of $150,000 to $250,000.

In August 1843, the former president, then 76, sat for a photographer during a visit to upstate New York and pronounced the results “all hideous.” Unfortunately for him, a daguerreotype from that sitting surfaced at an antiques shop in 1970, priced at 50 cents, and currently sits in the National Portrait Gallery, where it laid claim to being the oldest surviving original photograph of an American president.

The daguerreotype, which carries an estimate of $150,000 to $250,000, was taken in a Washington portrait studio in March 1843, when Adams was in the middle of his post-presidential career in Congress. He gave it as a gift to a fellow representative, whose descendants kept it in the family while apparently losing track of its significance. –The New York Times

Now, however, a slightly older and more flattering daguerreotype of Adams, America’s sixth president, has surfaced and will be sold at auction at Sotheby’s in October.

Emily Bierman, the head of Sotheby’s photographs department, called it “without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.”

“Not only is it an incredibly important historical record,” she said, “it’s also a stunning composition. You really get a sense of who Adams was.”

The newly surfaced Adams daguerreotype does not offer an entirely fresh view of the man either. The same penetrating gaze, heavily whiskered jaw, and elegant parlor backdrop are visible in a famous image also owned by the Met. But that image is also a reproduction by Southworth and Hawes from an original daguerreotype that has apparently been lost and it shows Adams sitting in a slightly different pose.

Adams, who sat for more than 60 portraits over the course of his life, was intrigued by the uncanny likenesses produced by the new medium of photography, even if he wasn’t always charmed by the results. In his diary on March 8, 1843, he recorded his first visit to the Washington studio of Philip Haas, where he sat for three daguerreotypes. (Daguerreotypes, which are made directly onto chemically treated plates, are unique objects; no negatives are involved.)

About the process of creating a photograph in 1843, Adams wrote:

“The operation is performed in half a minute, but is yet altogether incomprehensible to me. It would seem as easy to stamp a fixed portrait from the reflection of a mirror; but how wonderful would that reflection itself be, if we were not familiarized to it from childhood.”

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