Arts & Culture

Our image of Lincoln

Object lesson: Digital tools and a collection of photos spark new ways of thinking about the president.

Laura Wexler is a professor of American studies; film and media studies; and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. She is a scholar of film and photography of the United States.

Yale Digital Humanities Laboratory

Yale Digital Humanities Laboratory

In this grid of faces—an experiment created at Yale’s Digital Humanities Laboratory—images of Abraham Lincoln are juxtaposed with computer-generated composites. Lincoln, who well understood the power of photography, might have been intrigued. View full image

As a child, I thought I might be the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln.

In reality I knew that no such thing was possible. But still I felt so strongly kin that it seemed there could be an element of truth. From stories of Lincoln, I created an image of the adult I wanted to become. In point of fact, my image of Lincoln was an image of me. Like any historical figure, Lincoln existed for me only because I used my own ideas to bring him forth.

The drive to make an image of Lincoln that will gather and mirror the better aspirations of the American self is a staple desire of American education. It is also fundamental to the history of American photography. Mathew Brady’s portraits of Lincoln are some of the most sought after of all American images because they formulate the yearning so well. Brady’s famous 1860 Cooper Union portrait presents a Lincoln who is plainly both statesman and everyman at once. It is no wonder that Lincoln later perceived that “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me president.” Lincoln was not referring to the politics—far from it—but the picture. Brady showed Lincoln to the public as an image of what could be.

Recently, an extraordinary opportunity to study the dynamic of Lincoln in what Frederick Douglass called “pictures and progress” came to Yale. As Brady discerned, in photographs of Lincoln a distinctive form of American aspiration takes shape. Frederick Hill Meserve collected, studied, and republished vintage nineteenth-century photographs from 1897 to his death in 1962. Working with his daughter, Dorothy Turner Meserve Kunhardt, he built the most extensive collection of photographs of Abraham Lincoln ever gathered in a single collection. Besides the Lincoln pictures, this collection also includes photographs, books, printed ephemera, and material objects that pertain to the American Civil War and after. In 2015, the Beinecke Library, aided by the Rice Family Foundation, purchased a portion of the collection. Peter W. Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt III donated further portions. In all, Yale has more than 50,000 of the objects.

In a productive coincidence, Yale also founded the Digital Humanities Laboratory in 2015, with funding from the Goizueta Foundation. The lab brings computational methods to bear upon the study of the humanities. Peter Leonard and Douglas Duhaime of the lab are now playing around with sorting, tagging, and displaying the Lincoln images.

The grid of photos shown here is one of their experiments. Using facial similarity measurements, the grid pairs actual photographs of Lincoln with computer-generated “fake” faces that an artificial neural network has constructed from pieces, scraps, and shadows of tens of thousands of “real” faces. In asking how a computer trained on this large data set of nineteenth-century images sees Lincoln, we will be disappointed if we expect the Lincoln we already know how to see. Rather, the computer is showing us things about relationships to Lincoln that we have not yet imagined.

Historians know that the Lincoln who once lived can continue to matter only if children continue to learn in increasingly discerning ways how to imagine him. In a sense, we each must reincarnate Abraham Lincoln for our present needs, or we must give him up.

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