Errol Morris Meditates on the Meaning and History of Abraham Lincoln’s Last Photograph


I believe it was Jacques Der­ri­da, though I don’t recall exact­ly where, who said that some of the most reveal­ing text of any work can be found in the foot­notes. In doc­u­men­tar­i­an Errol Mor­ris’ recent pho­to-essay series on Lin­coln for The New York Times, foot­notes, chronolo­gies, snip­pets of inter­view, and end­less­ly recur­sive ref­er­ences con­tin­u­ous­ly intrude on the sto­ries he tells. In this way, the series, called “The Inter­minable, Ever­last­ing Lin­colns,” enacts the ten­sion Mor­ris iden­ti­fies as “the push-pull of his­to­ry,” a con­test between sev­er­al ways of approach­ing the past: “Facts vs. beliefs. Our desire to know the ori­gins of things vs. our desire to rework, to recon­fig­ure the past to suit our own beliefs and predilec­tions. Per­haps noth­ing bet­ter illus­trates this than two rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent pre­dis­po­si­tions to objects—the sto­ry­teller vs. the col­lec­tor.”

The way sto­ry after sto­ry inevitably nests with­in each his­tor­i­cal arti­fact seems to be Mor­ris’ over­ar­ch­ing theme as he charts the his­to­ry of Lin­coln iconog­ra­phy by ref­er­ence to a sin­gle image, a pho­to of Lin­coln by Alexan­der Gard­ner that exists in only one known orig­i­nal print, called O‑118 after col­lec­tor of Lin­coln pho­tog­ra­phy Lloyd Osten­dorf (see the retouched ver­sion above, the orig­i­nal print below). This print, along with 13 oth­ers, was made either four or five days before Lincoln’s assas­si­na­tion.


Mor­ris’ fas­ci­na­tion with this pho­to­graph is as var­i­ous­ly moti­vat­ed as the num­ber of dif­fer­ent views he adopts in exam­in­ing its prove­nance, its his­to­ry, and its mean­ing. For one thing, O‑118 is sup­pos­ed­ly the last pho­to­graph tak­en of Lin­coln alive. In 1922, The New York Times pub­lished the orig­i­nal print (above) with text by James Young, who wrote:

Prob­a­bly no oth­er pho­to­graph of Lin­coln con­veys more clear­ly the abid­ing sad­ness of the face. The lines of time and care are deeply etched, and he has the look of a man bor­der­ing upon old age, though he was only 56. Proof that the cam­era was but a few feet away may be found by scruti­ny of the pic­ture…. The print has been untouched, and this pic­ture is an exact like­ness of the Pres­i­dent as he looked in the week of his death.

The photo’s cap­tion also includ­ed infor­ma­tion that Mor­ris makes a great deal of: “The Cracked Neg­a­tive Caused it To Be Dis­card­ed. It Has Only Once Before Been Pub­lished, and Then in a Retouched Form.” For one thing, Mor­ris seems to asso­ciate the pho­to­graph with what Wal­ter Ben­jamin called “aura”; The print, it seems, was the only one Gard­ner was able to make before the cracked neg­a­tive became use­less and mass pro­duc­tion from the source impos­si­ble. Un-retouched, the print shows a “frac­ture cut­ting through the top of Lincoln’s head.” For the sto­ry­teller, writes Mor­ris, “the crack is the begin­ning of a legend—the leg­end of a death fore­told. The crack seems to antic­i­pate the bul­let fired into the back of Lincoln’s head at Ford’s The­ater on Good Fri­day, April 14, 1865.” Using the rhetor­i­cal term for “a fig­ure of antic­i­pa­tion,” a nar­ra­tive fea­ture that fore­shad­ows, fore­tells, or proph­e­sies, Mor­ris calls this “the pro­lep­tic crack.”

His wind­ing nar­ra­tive, replete with the anti­quar­i­an minu­ti­ae of col­lec­tors, moves from the day—February 5, 1865—that Lin­coln and his son Tad walked to Gardner’s stu­dio on 7th Street in Wash­ing­ton, DC for the pho­to ses­sion, through the use of pho­tog­ra­phy as an aid to Lin­coln painters and sculp­tors, to the mean­ing of Lin­coln for such diverse peo­ple as Leo Tol­stoy, Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe, and our cur­rent Pres­i­dent. Mor­ris’ series ranges far and wide, vis­it­ing with his­to­ri­ans and col­lec­tors along the way, and telling many a sto­ry, some freely spec­u­la­tive, some wist­ful, some trag­ic, and all some­how cir­cling back to O‑118. Like much of Mor­ris’ doc­u­men­tary work, it’s an exer­cise in collage—of the meth­ods of the schol­ar, the essay­ist, and the archivist—and like its sub­ject, it’s a frac­tured, but ever­last­ing­ly fas­ci­nat­ing med­i­ta­tion. Fol­low Mor­ris’ entire series below.

Pro­logue: Pre­mo­ni­tions

Part 1: Feb­ru­ary 5, 1865

Part 2: The Pro­lep­tic Crack

Part 3: In the Cau­ca­sus

Relat­ed Con­tent:

New Errol Mor­ris Film Asks Whether We Will Ever Know the Truth About the Kennedy Assas­si­na­tion

The Last Sur­viv­ing Wit­ness of the Lin­coln Assas­si­na­tion

Visu­al­iz­ing Slav­ery: The Map Abra­ham Lin­coln Spent Hours Study­ing Dur­ing the Civ­il War

The Poet­ry of Abra­ham Lin­coln

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.