Eastman House displays Abraham Lincoln’s favorite image, featuring museum’s conservation of shattered glass plate

This interpositive is the closest you will ever get to ‘seeing’ Lincoln

For Release 2009-01-20

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — A conserved glass-plate image of Abraham Lincoln from 1860 is being presented to the public for the first time — and is not only Lincoln’s personal favorite portrait but it is the closest one will get to “seeing” Lincoln. In honor of the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, a display titled “Lincoln Portrait: Conservation of a National Treasure” will go on view beginning Feb. 1 at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography & Film. 

The museum is showcasing its two-year conservation treatment of a partially shattered glass-plate interpositive of Lincoln. The image, depicting a “handsome” and beardless Lincoln, was taken when he was beginning his presidential run. It is celebrated as one of the best portraits made of the 16th president, and he was in agreement. “That looks better and expresses me better than any I have ever seen; if it pleases the people I am satisfied,” Lincoln said, in response to the portrait.

The interpositive — an intermediate format used to generate negatives for volume production of prints — was made directly from the original wet-plate collodion negative, which captured the light from Lincoln’s face during the June 3, 1860 sitting. This is the only known interpositive of this portrait. The original negative, held at the Smithsonian Institution, is shattered. 

This image “is the closest you will ever get to seeing Lincoln, short of putting your eyeballs on the man himself,” explained Grant Romer, director of the museum’s Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation, who is one of the world’s leading experts on 19th-century and Lincoln photography. “This is Lincoln in high definition. You can see more detail than you’ll ever see in a copy print.”

As a world leader in photograph conservation, Eastman House was sought out by the plate’s owner, who chooses to remain anonymous. The glass plate was conserved by Eastman House conservation staff and fellows in the Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation. Much of the work involved research in innovative methods, using materials that stabilize the fragile glass and image emulsion for today, and will preserve this national treasure for future generations. 

The original portrait was taken by Alexander Hesler and the silver gelatin interpositive was made by George P. Ayres. Also on view from the Eastman House collections will be a treasured 8x10” albumen print of Lincoln made by Ayres, derived from this interpositive. The “Lincoln Portrait” display is included with regular museum admission.

“We know Lincoln not because of a painting of Lincoln, not because of a statue of Lincoln, but because of photographs of Lincoln,” said Romer, who noted there are 130 to 140 different portraits of Lincoln. Eastman House holds a rich collection of Lincoln images, and many will be on view this winter at Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery, in the exhibition “Lincoln in Rochester.” 

Romer discusses the Lincoln glass-plate restoration project as part of a podcast, which you can access at http://podcast.eastmanhouse.org/2007/09.

Lincoln Lectures

Eastman House will present two lectures in relation to the conservation project and Lincoln bicentennial:

“Facing Lincoln”

6 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 5

Grant Romer, director of George Eastman House’s Advanced Residency Program in Photograph Conservation, and one of the world’s leading experts on 19th-century and Lincoln photography, will discuss how the face of Abraham Lincoln has been an essential element of historical fascination, and the role that photography has had in establishing Lincoln’s iconic presence in American culture. The lecture will be held in the Dryden Theatre and is included with museum admission.

“Abraham Lincoln: From Shards of Glass to National Treasure, the Conservation of the Hesler-Ayres Portrait Interpositive”

6 to 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26

Ralph Wiegandt, assistant director for Conservation Education in George Eastman House’s Advanced Residency Program, will describe the challenges in reconstructing a seminal Lincoln image on glass, and the conservation procedures innovated in the museum’s conservation laboratory. The lecture presents the glass plate’s condition as it came into the laboratory, and takes the audience through the process that was carried out so the image can be viewed and appreciated today, and preserved for the future. The lecture will be held in the Dryden Theatre and is included with museum admission.

For more information, visit www.eastmanhouse.org or call (585) 271-3361. Admission to Eastman House is $10 for adults; $8 for senior citizens (60 and older); $6 for students; $4 for children (5-12); and free for children 4 and under and museum members.

This is a smaller version of the exhibition of the same name produced by the Vancouver Art Gallery. Both versions were curated by Alison Nordström, Curator of Photographs, George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

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