Abraham Lincoln and the transposed head

Figure 1 - Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 1860 - or is it.  From the Wikicommons and in the public domain.

Figure 1 – Portrait of Abraham Lincoln, 1860 – or is it. From the Wikicommons and in the public domain.

What Lincoln supporters needed was a dramatic photograph of the president.  What was called for was a pose of elegant and powerful grandeur.  But no such image existed.  The result is shown in Figure 1 – the imperial president ready to slay the foes of abolition and union. Many of you may remember this image from childhood, because it hung for generations in classrooms nationwide.

However, no such image existed at the time – not did it ever really exist.  What did exist was a portrait of a very stately John Calhoun, a Southern leader and a Mathew Brady image of Lincoln’s face.  So what was done was that the face of Lincoln was cut out of the Brady portrait and pasted onto Calhoun’s body.  It was then rephotographed to create the final Lincoln image. But first one more piece of photographic art had to be performed. In the Calhoun’s image, the papers on the table read “strict constitution,” “free trade,” and “the sovereignty of the states.” In the Lincoln image, these have been changed to read, “constitution,” “union,” and “proclamation of freedom.”

Figure 2 - John Calhoun 1860 - from the Wikicommons and in the public domain.

Figure 2 – John Calhoun 1860 – from the Wikicommons and in the public domain.

 

Would we do such a thing today?  Of course we would.  This kind of transposition of heads and bodies is today a common tool of the fashion and tabloid world, where the goal is to augment chest size of reduce body weight.  Visit the Oddee website for some famous examples.  But let me offer two choice examples.  The is Oprah Winfrey’s head on Ann Margaret‘s body.  from the cover of TV Guide in August 1989.According to Oddee, the composite was created without permission

Figure 3 - Mathew Brady, Lincoln Portrait, 1860 from the Wikicommons and in the public domain.

Figure 3 – Mathew Brady, Lincoln Portrait, 1860 from the Wikicommons and in the public domain.

of Winfrey or Ann-Margret, and was detected by Ann-Margret’s fashion designer, who recognized the dress.  The second is the famous gun tottin’ Sarah palin in patriotic bikini – not.  Sorry to disappoint everyone on that score.

So the real question is: does anyone still believe that a photograph never lies?  I have gotten so skeptical of every image that I see on the web that the first thing that I invariably do is a quick search of the web for the subject and the word fake.  I believe that I have previously recounted how once when I expressed my doubts on Facebook with the words “If it’s true.”  Another friend of a friend almost immediately countered that “it didn’t matter if it were true.”  Well to all my friends – of no matter what degree of separation – it kinda’ does matter!

This entry was posted in History of Photography.

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  1. […] we are still enchanted 150 years after.  And even more curious is the fact that if I tell you that it’s really only Lincoln’s head and face transposed on Calhoun’s body, you are unperturbed.  The intimacy remains!  The magic is still in the […]