Old Photographs of the Famous and the Not-So-Famous

My mother is holding me outside the White House in the 1950s.  Look how stylishly everyone is dressed.

A collector just paid $50,000 for a tiny photograph of a barely discernible Abraham Lincoln standing outside the White House. Almost a hundred years later, my father photographed me in my mother's arms outside the White House. Collectors aren't clamoring to buy this photograph, but that's okay, because it's priceless!

In January, Ulysses S. Grant VI discovered a photograph in his great-great-grandfather’s album of President Abraham Lincoln standing next to the White House.  Lincoln is especially “hot” right now, because his birthday was 200 years ago this year.   A collector paid Grant $50,000 for the tiny photograph, which is thought to be the last one taken of Lincoln. (See story at the bottom.)

I’ve been looking through old family photographs, too.    My mother just acquired a stack of old sepia and black and white photographs left by relatives who’d died.  Are they worth anything?  Heck, yes!  They have enormous sentimental value.  Monetary value?  Unlikely. (We do have a blurry photograph of President Dwight Eisenhower.  Collectors?)

Photography collector Keya Morgan holds what he believes is a rare, unpublished photograph of Abraham Lincoln, the only image of the 16th president in front of the White House and the last sitting of Lincoln in 1865 before he died, in Beverly Hills, Calif., Friday, March 6, 2009.  The image by photographer Henry F. Warren was uncovered in the personal album of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.  (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Photography collector Keya Morgan holds what he believes is a rare, unpublished photograph of Abraham Lincoln, the only image of the 16th president in front of the White House and the last sitting of Lincoln in 1865 before he died, in Beverly Hills, Calif., Friday, March 6, 2009. The image by photographer Henry F. Warren was uncovered in the personal album of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Some are duplicates my parents made for my grandparents, including photographs of my young parents holding me at various tourist spots in the Washington. D.C. area, where we lived.  I don’t remember seeing these photographs before.  It’s great to see my parents in their youth before I really knew them.

Others are of long-dead relatives, but who are they?  Why aren’t there any names or dates?  Even if I don’t know who they are, I can’t toss these portals into the past. There are First Communions (twin brothers solemnly holding lit candles and prayerbooks), weddings, family reunions (Hey, I recognize those eyebrows!), school groups and a group shot of  the band at Fort Meade, South Dakota, in 1898.

Through the years, photographs pile up  — a record of people our descendants never knew and may not care about.  Tossed in a box, the photographs curl in the damp basement or fade in the attic.  Worse, they might appear on some comical greeting card!  

How many millions and millions of old photographs are out there?  If you laid them end to end would they reach to the moon?  Digital cameras make it so easy to document every event, no matter how trivial or ridiculous (I’m guilty!).  Even your phone is a camera. Most of these digital shots don’t make it into print and are almost as ephemeral as the moments they captured.  Maybe this is a good thing, some would say.  Live in the moment, save some trees and chemicals.   As for me, I’m glad to visit these moments frozen in time.

My father is holding me at Mt. Vernon, Virginia, George Washington's home, which was just down the road from Fort Belvoir, where my dather was stationed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

My father is holding me at Mt. Vernon, Virginia, George Washington's home, which was just down the road from Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where my father was stationed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

WASHINGTON – A collector believes a photograph from a private album of Civil War Gen. Ulysses S. Grant shows President Abraham Lincoln in front of the White House and could be the last image taken of him before he was assassinated in 1865.

If it is indeed Lincoln, it would be the only known photo of the 16th president in front of the executive mansion and a rare find, as only about 130 photos of him are known to exist. A copy of the image was provided to The Associated Press.

Grant’s 38-year-old great-great-grandson, Ulysses S. Grant VI, had seen the picture before, but didn’t examine it closely until late January. A tall figure in the distance caught his eye, although the man’s facial features are obscured.

He called Keya Morgan, a New York-based photography collector and Lincoln aficionado, who helped identify it as Lincoln.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know who this is, Keya,'” said Grant, a Springfield, Mo., construction business owner.

Although authenticating the 2 1/2-by-3 1/2-inch photo beyond a shadow of a doubt could be difficult, several historians who looked at it said the evidence supporting Morgan’s claim is compelling and believable.

Morgan talked Grant into taking the photo out of the album and examining it for clues, such as the identity of the photographer.

“Not knowing who the photographer is is like not knowing who your mother or father is,” Morgan told Grant.

Grant carefully removed it and was shocked to see the handwritten inscription on the back: “Lincoln in front of the White House.” Grant believes his great-grandfather, Jesse Grant, the general’s youngest son, wrote the inscription.

Also included was the date 1865, the seal of photographer Henry F. Warren, and a government tax stamp that was issued for such photos to help the Civil War effort between 1864 and 1866.

Morgan recalled the well-documented story of Warren’s trip to Washington to photograph Lincoln after his second inauguration in March 1865. Lincoln was killed in April, so the photo could be the last one taken of him.

Warren, a commercial photographer from Massachusetts, enticed Lincoln into his frame shortly after the inauguration by taking pictures of young Tad Lincolnand asking the boy to bring his father along for a pose, according to the book, “Lincoln in Photographs: An Album of Every Known Pose,” by Charles Hamilton and Lloyd Ostendorf.

“This is the first act of paparazzi ever toward a president,” Morgan said. “Lincoln is not too happy at all.”

Historians say it has been decades since a newfound Lincoln image was fully authenticated. And in the Grant photo, it’s not obvious to the naked eye who is standing in front of the executive mansion.

You can see the White House, a short gate that once lined the building, and, on the lawn, a Thomas Jefferson statue that was later replaced with a fountain. Five people can be seen standing in front of the building. The tall man’s face is obscured, but zooming in on the image with a computer reveals a telling beard.

“Once you scan it and blow it up, you can see the whole scenario — there’s a giant standing near the White House,” Morgan said.

At 6-foot-4, Lincoln was the tallest U.S. president.

Morgan, who has sold photographs of Lincoln and other historical figures to the Smithsonian Institution, the White House and others, said he purchased the image from Grant for $50,000 in February. It will be added to Morgan’s $25 million collection of Lincoln artifacts and original images.

Several historians say Morgan has a good case.

Will Stapp, who was the founding curator of the National Portrait Gallery‘s photographs department and who now appraises fine art and photographs, said he’s usually cynical about such claims. But he said he was “very satisfied that it’s Lincoln” in the picture.

“It looks to me like Lincoln’s physique,” he said. “I can see his hairline. I can see the shadow of his beard.”

White House curatorWilliam Allman said the photo appears to include Lincoln. “I guess there’s always an element of doubt,” he said. “It feels pretty likely, though.”

Even if it’s not Lincoln, it would be among the oldest photographs of the White House.

Lincoln artifacts have recently been hot commodities leading up to the 200th anniversary of his birth, and President Barack Obama has evoked his memory several times for his work to unify the nation.

The significance of the photo is difficult to judge, Stapp said. It does show the relative freedom Lincoln had compared with presidents today, and offers a unique view of the White House from the 1860s, he said.

“We don’t so much think of (Lincoln) as living at the White House,” Stapp said. “In that respect, I think it’s an important find.”

Keya Morgan Collection: Lincoln Images.


Filed under Abraham Lincoln, History, Humor, Life, Personal, Photography, Presidents, Random

5 responses to “Old Photographs of the Famous and the Not-So-Famous

  1. This is such a great post! Being the family historian is tough, I always have a camera in hand, and everyone gives me a hard time. You have pointed out why it is so very important to keep the history alive and why I do it! It’s true that in this digital age we forget to print it out, I just spent the last two evenings printing out my digital photo’s just so that I can have a printed history. The coolest gift I have ever received was a photo album from my kids that captured all of our memories from an adult family trip to Montana. This gift represents a future family heirloom. It felt so incredible to know that the kids have finally embraced my photo journalistic ideas. It’s only been twenty five years in the making! I spend a good amount of time researching family history also, so it’s good from that perspective also. Thanks again, as always..a great post!

    Thanks, I’m glad you liked this post. I’m glad I’ve taken so many photographs, although the huge number of them is overwhelming. Sometimes, I think I’m the only one who cares about them, but I saw my son and his girlfriend going through his childhood photos, and that made me smile. Cathy


  2. Annette Townsend

    Your pictures are superb and so memorable. My favorites, of course, are the ones of your parents holding you. What a slice of history! You must be so thankful and proud to have those memories preserved so beautifully! My personal focus is on historical pictures and collect them to donate to historical societies all across the country. We must learn history’s lessons, so we don’t repeat them, and photos are worth more than all the words ever written. Please keep your personal journal coming. It’s magnificent and I love your writing style. AT


  3. I actually have hundreds of photos stored on my Google Account. This is the easiest way to make sure they are not lost. Most of my journeys are kept there back to 2005.
    This generation will be the most photographed in history and will offer a great view that we never had of the past. Pictures like yours of you and your family are glimpses of the past. The future will be different.

    I have 10,000 photos stored on google, but I worry about computer crashes and server problems. I also have at least 10,000 prints. That’s too many, but I’m starting to get even more photos printed because I don’t want to lose them. Even so, some of my older color photos are really fading fast. CDs and DVDs don’t last forever, and some day we won’t have the machines to read them. It may be that the photographs from the 1800s outlast all of them. Cathy


  4. I LOVE looking through old photographs!! They don’t even have to belong to anyone I know, but are even better if they do! Those photos of your parents holding you are wonderful, and yes, they do record not only them before you knew them, but that whole period in history. Wonderful! It’s good that you appreciate those old photos. And yes, now that you mention it, I’ll bet all the old photos out there would reach the moon… definitely way beyond it if you count the digital age. I share your mixed views on that– I love being able to take more photos, and the “less paper, less chemicals” idea, but sometimes I think I forget more of those I’ve shot b/c I never went through the printing process with them… I guess it’s like everything out there– good and bad to all.

    Thanks, I may publish more old photographs. A photograph really is worth a thousand words….or more. They tell so much, even things that the people in those times took for granted and didn’t think to write about. Based on the number of photos being taken now, we’ll really know about this current period of time, probably too much! Cathy


  5. CM

    Hi, Catherine. I know this is an old post, but I just stumbled across it and wanted to say: Da*n! I can’t believe your mom did the tourist thing in D.C. with those heels on!! She must have been one hot mama that day. 🙂


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