Presidential image

Today is February 14, and I suspect that the overwhelming majority of people associate this day with Saint Valentine. Although the saint’s name is today – and this day in particular – associated with romantic love and with the cajolery of the greeting card industry in particular, it is far from clear whether it is Valentine who should be attracting our attention today.

I’ll go instead for President James K. Polk, who was President of the United States between 1845 and 1849. On February 14 1849, during his final year in office, Polk was the first sitting US President to have his photograph taken – a daguerreotype taken in New York city. As an amateur photographer myself, I find this a really interesting moment of political and photographic history.

But one should not pass in the vicinity of President Polk without mentioning that he came into office unexpectedly, having offered to the electorate an ambitious set of goals which, over his four year term (he had promised to stand for one term only), he managed fully to achieve. One of the things he achieved was an expansion of the powers of the presidency.

Polk was what has been termed a ‘consequential’ president, in that his decisions and actions created change. He is mostly recognised for extending the borders of the US to the Pacific. But then again, his actions included a somewhat brutal war with Mexico, and he was himself also a slaveholder. He was at best a president with an ambivalent record in office.

His expansion of the United States from coast to coast may be his main claim to a place in history; but for me it is his photograph, taken on February 14 1849.

 

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2 Comments on “Presidential image”

  1. Anna Notaro Says:

    One could argue that US Presidents have long been fans of technology, even if they weren’t always early adopters, for a rundown of presidential early adopters see: “11 Pivotal Moments in White House Technology”
    http://mentalfloss.com/article/62934/11-pivotal-moments-white-house-technology

    We have come a long way from Polk’s daguerreotype to Obama becoming the first President to take a thrixtie: a photograph that captures an image in 360 degrees: https://medium.com/the-mettaverse/virtual-presidents-obama-the-thrixtie-and-why-presidents-make-great-early-adopters-5df3b73dd28#.vvpdk1h43

    As Andrew Meade McGee, a historian at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business put it: “Presidents always invoke advances in technology to further their domestic and foreign policy goals,” before adding that Americans “like to tie notions of progress to the position of the president, who both uses new technologies and shapes technology as a policymaker and uses it to promote policy goals.”

    This seems particularly true of the latest President and his use of Twitter. In the words of one commentator: “Trump is able to connect with the American people in an authentic and real way that other recent presidents haven’t been able to. When he tweets, people understand it’s actually coming from him.” http://www.usnews.com/news/ken-walshs-washington/articles/2017-01-06/trump-uses-twitter-as-strategic-weapon

    Twitter has contributed enormously to the ‘image’ of the new President, but to go back to photography I wonder what President Polk would have made of President Trump’s official portrait, the image had to be pulled out after social media users spotted a typo in the inspirational quote http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/donald-trump-inauguration-photo-quote-typo-mistake-spelling-grammar-inspirational-a7577946.html

    No grammar Nazi in the White House.

  2. Vince Says:

    I drew the TIFF from the Library of Congress. It has a really exceptional amount of detail even still. And the face is quite sharp, considering the hit or miss with hand ground&polished glass back then. The overall tint to the thing isn’t a million miles from that odd orange you have on your links here on the blog.
    Made by a chap called Brady it seems.

    Here’s my 2p worth.
    Consequential politicians are totally dangerous, unpredictable and usually make things great for a very tiny section of the population.
    What you need is a boring, unseen, utter administrative genius who can see the civil service, the professions and the various factions for what they are.


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