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

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