…a parable of humanness in the age of pervasive documentation.
October 21, 2013 9:35 AM   Subscribe

"The famous photographs of Lincoln assassination co-conspirator Lewis Powell show modern self-consciousness being born before an indifferent lens."
posted by iamkimiam (51 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite

 
I've been obsessed with that Powell photograph for years.
posted by whittaker at 9:40 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Holy cow, that's cool.
posted by Z. Aurelius Fraught at 9:42 AM on October 21, 2013


Great great article. Thanks.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:44 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've never seen it before, and it's an amazing picture. I am shocked that mid-19th century technology can produce such an image!
posted by Mister_A at 9:52 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


And blog commentary by Nathan Jurgenson, in response to this piece.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:53 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Here's more of the work in colorizing 19th century photos.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:01 AM on October 21, 2013


That picture is very arresting, and I think it's because 1) he's strikingly attractive, and 2) he's facing death. But I don't think I buy the argument about the birth of modern self-consciousness.

The picture provided for comparison was taken under such different conditions ("Honey, let's get dressed up and have our picture made by that new camera invention" versus "You, prisoner, look at the man") that it can account for the differences. And if you look at other photos of criminals taken under similar conditions (minus the death sentence), such as this, or this, you can see a similar direct un-posed confrontation of the camera.

[Though this could just be my reflexive reaction against arguments that say we modern people are dramatically different from those of the past. Lately I've found "same monkeys with bigger sticks" to be a good default description of human progress.]
posted by benito.strauss at 10:07 AM on October 21, 2013 [16 favorites]


The "modernity," I think, comes mostly from his lack of a collar.
posted by Sys Rq at 10:19 AM on October 21, 2013 [14 favorites]


The colorization is awful, and if that's the only reason the writer is "captivated", I'd say he needs to back away from the TV/computer screen.

"First, the subjects seem unsure of how to position themselves before the camera; they are still unsettled, it seems, by the photographic technique. "

You try sitting still that long, and see how uncomfortable you feel. I think the author shows very little understanding of how these photos were taken.

Jurgenson's essay has it exactly right. All of the people in the photos had seen photographs before--if not of themselves, then of others. By contrast, Helen Keller, for example, had never seen herself or indeed any other reproduced image, and thus, really did not have a preconceived notion of how to arrange herself for the camera.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:20 AM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I agree with benito.strauss on this. The author seems to be giving far too much credit and intentionality to Powell, suggesting that he's purposefully inventing some new subjectivity. Photos of people who in all likelihood will never see the picture (and in this case, have nothing to lose) will be different from photos of people who expect to see and show the photo for years to come. People look different on security cameras than they do in their wedding photos.

However, this is a pretty good description of the common self-conscious approach to being photographed:

"he had to play himself before the camera...In order to appear indifferent to the camera, Powell had to perform the part of Lewis Powell as Lewis Powell would appear were there no camera present."
posted by echo target at 10:23 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


The "modernity," I think, comes mostly from his lack of a collar.

And his hair style. He's what the wannabes wanna be.
posted by The Bellman at 10:32 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


suggesting that he's purposefully inventing some new subjectivity

I think it works nicely even if you leave out the purposeful-ness of it. The subjectivity happened.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 10:33 AM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also, while I don't know if Powell would have seen the Pre-Raphaelites' works, the pose is right in tune with that style of art. It's 1865--not the dark ages.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:35 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


The colorization is awful, and if that's the only reason the writer is "captivated"

I don't think that's the only reason why the writer is captivated. Roland Barthes was similarly captivated based on a B&W photograph in the same series. That is discussed at length in the essay.

such as this, or this, you can see a similar direct un-posed confrontation of the camera.

Both of those photographs look very posed to my eyes, more like the proud family in their Sunday best than Powell in his passive resistance.
posted by muddgirl at 10:55 AM on October 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


You try sitting still that long, and see how uncomfortable you feel.

Isn't this true for Powell, too? He must have held this pose for quite awhile. That is part of what arrests me - we are used to modern cameras that can capture "candid poses" that read as informal and authentic, but Powell must have arranged himself and held quite still.
posted by muddgirl at 11:09 AM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


Having an Emo assassin wasn't the best idea to come out of this conspiracy.
posted by dr_dank at 11:09 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


The strange apparent modernity of it reminds me of the Robert Cornelius self portrait.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 11:16 AM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


I've never seen it before, and it's an amazing picture. I am shocked that mid-19th century technology can produce such an image!

In some ways, their technology was better. A properly shot photograph from that era would be razor sharp and have an incredible depth. And the digital equivalent of wet plates used would require the equivalent of hundreds or even thousands of megapixels.

Plus, we can still view them 150 years later. (And without electricity, even!) I doubt our descendants will be able to say the same about our Instagram selfies.
posted by entropicamericana at 11:16 AM on October 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Wikipedia has the full photograph.
posted by muddgirl at 11:17 AM on October 21, 2013 [8 favorites]


I mean, the full version of the photograph excerpted in the essay.
posted by muddgirl at 11:17 AM on October 21, 2013


benito.strauss: "[Though this could just be my reflexive reaction against arguments that say we modern people are dramatically different from those of the past. Lately I've found "same monkeys with bigger sticks" to be a good default description of human progress.]"

Whether or not your reaction to the photo is reflexive, I think looking at history with the default assumption that such a simple description suffices is going to lead you astray basically always, since it never affords you the opportunity to examine just how bound up your notion of simplicity is in your current environment and attitudes.
posted by invitapriore at 11:24 AM on October 21, 2013


I don't think I buy the argument about the birth of modern self-consciousness.

It's a bit of a just-so-story. Sacasas isn't wrong, necessarily, to suggest that we face cameras differently now than our ancestors did, but I'm skeptical that the weight of modern self-consciousness can be hung on the Powell photographs. The "modernity" of the Powell photograph seems to lie in Powell's defiant gaze back at the camera. But his defiance isn't surprising; he was a captured rebel facing a certain death. Of course he was defiant.

I suppose you can make the case that defiance-before-the-lens is the natural pose of the subject in the 21st century and that we are all Powells now, facing our cameras with an insouciant knowledge of our own mortality, but that makes Powell a metaphor, not a harbinger.

Interestingly, Wikipedia says of Powell, "In his early years, Lewis was described as quiet and introverted, and well liked among others."
posted by octobersurprise at 11:29 AM on October 21, 2013 [3 favorites]


he's strikingly attractive

He's a good-looking guy for sure but he's no Phineas Gage.
posted by elizardbits at 11:29 AM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think another thing that greatly contributes to the modernity of the photo is the industrial roughness of the background, as well as the fact that he is right up against it. That seems to be in strong contrast to the velvet-curtained studio portraits that are more typical of the era.
posted by Rock Steady at 11:30 AM on October 21, 2013


I can buy that Powell was trying not to acknowledge the camera, but I don't know what that has to do with his "subjectivity," nor how one may gain or lose subjectivity. Is this an established term of art that I've missed?
posted by LogicalDash at 11:31 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Interesting theory, though of course founded on speculations completely unprovable by any means.

God I miss college.
posted by nanojath at 11:33 AM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


> A properly shot photograph from that era would be razor sharp and have an incredible depth.

The lenses were very crude, though, so there were likely many aberrations in the image. Apertures were tiny, so here was considerable loss of sharpness. Also the medium wasn't panchromatic, so tones are not properly represented in the print.
posted by scruss at 11:34 AM on October 21, 2013


Suggested follow-up experiment: clean it up a bit in photoshop, slap an American Apparel logo on it, call it "classic pullover top" and see how many people try to click through to buy it.
posted by nanojath at 11:35 AM on October 21, 2013 [17 favorites]


Wait they had a fake prision cell backdrop for mugshots? That's insane.
posted by Tom-B at 11:37 AM on October 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


nanojath, at the risk of derail, you should check this out.
posted by glhaynes at 11:39 AM on October 21, 2013 [9 favorites]


More shots of Payne/Powell (and others) here. He is less charismatic-looking in the raincoat, but still more than the other conspirators.
And he wouldn't have had to hold the position for too long; exposure times were about 1-2 seconds with wet plate around that time.
posted by starman at 11:44 AM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


entropicamericana: "Plus, we can still view them 150 years later. (And without electricity, even!) I doubt our descendants will be able to say the same about our Instagram selfies."

Thank god.
posted by symbioid at 11:46 AM on October 21, 2013


Speaking of the linked images of the prisoners from Benito Strauss left me with a few impressions...

1) Awesome 'burns, dude!

2) Such a cruel view of things... Children so young sent to penance (I use this word quite purposefully)...

3) So - "Burning crops" was a thing, huh? What's the deal with that? General mischief? Political dissidence? Rebellion against those higher in station (i.e. farmers who own property)? I see that it was part of the criminal code to not burn things like crops or attempting to set mines on fire.

4) The methods used here were evolved away from by progressive reformers who brought us the current welfare state. I wonder, if, in a future communist society, would they look upon our society in the same way we look at that one? That is to say: "God, how awful, to treat those most impoverished in such a way... But... Compared to how they used to be treated it was an improvement. Thankfully, our society doesn't do that anymore and we have evolved a refined set of methods to resolve such issues."
posted by symbioid at 11:51 AM on October 21, 2013


Coincidentally, nine telegraph messages taken by operator Henry Harrison Atwater in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on Lincoln and Seward are currently for sale by Bauman Rare Books.
posted by octobersurprise at 1:48 PM on October 21, 2013


For comparison, photos of other famous US political assassins:
Booth
Charles Guiteau (killed Garfield)
Leon Czolgosz (killed McKinley)
Oswald
Sirhan Sirhan (killed Robert Kennedy)
James Earl Ray (killed Martin Luther King, Jr.)
posted by Atom Eyes at 3:29 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Charles Guiteau's eyes completely match his crazy, crazy statements in court and on the cusp of execution.
posted by whittaker at 3:40 PM on October 21, 2013


The camera just loves some people, and that is so freaking cool, but that's what it is, I think. The advent of the something something gaze? Not buying it.
posted by rainbaby at 4:22 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


I love this photo, but the essay was kinda grasping at straws. Especially given the prevalence of self portraits, which inherently display subjectivity. It's more an issue of a handsome dude, limitations of technology and lack of interest in being photographed.
posted by klangklangston at 4:27 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Then it seems like the question is, why do modern portrait photographs so often look exactly like this "lack of interest in being photographed?" Why do we see this lack of interest as natural and unposed when really being uninterested in a camera in your face seems like anything but natural?
posted by muddgirl at 4:30 PM on October 21, 2013


Atom Eyes, really nice links, but only one of them is of a man in custody, that I can tell at a glance (Ray) - so the comparison is a bit off.
posted by rainbaby at 4:31 PM on October 21, 2013


Oswald's mugshot.
posted by Sys Rq at 5:53 PM on October 21, 2013


I point out that part of Guiteau's defense was that, "yeah, I shot the man, BUT it was his awful doctors that killed him!" The probing of Garfiled's bullet wound by his medical team was awful and caused suffering with sepsis.
posted by jadepearl at 6:39 PM on October 21, 2013


"Then it seems like the question is, why do modern portrait photographs so often look exactly like this "lack of interest in being photographed?" Why do we see this lack of interest as natural and unposed when really being uninterested in a camera in your face seems like anything but natural?"

Modern portrait photos still don't, for the most part. They're still posed, aware of the camera (usually playing to it). But candid shots — fueled by higher ISOs and faster lenses — have influenced the aesthetic for a lot of photography, along with realist film fiction being a dominant mode.

This is especially confusing with dressed with the language of "modernism," an aesthetic, and "modern," an adjective of ostensible contemporary aesthetic.

Modernist portraits can have just as much studied awareness (or arguably, lack thereof).
posted by klangklangston at 7:15 PM on October 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


yeah, I was going to say Romantic portraits can have just as much studied awareness... Turner is what comes to mind for me, but I'm sure there are a half dozen others...
posted by wallstreet1929 at 7:25 PM on October 21, 2013


Wounded Man by Courbet.
posted by klangklangston at 7:44 PM on October 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


muddgirl: "Then it seems like the question is, why do modern portrait photographs so often look exactly like this "lack of interest in being photographed?""

Portraits of ordinary folks don't look like this, nor do candid shots of ordinary people.

What this does look like is fashion/catalogue photography, or portrait photography of Serious Actors and Serious Artists. A lot of which comes from "looking like you have attitude". So models put on a face of "attitude", and this guy actually had attitude. Attitude + modern looking clothes + modern looking hair + modern looking facial hair = looking like a modern fashion/serious artist photo. Nothing to do with inverting the performance of the subjective through the objectivity of the lens paradigm.
posted by Bugbread at 11:55 PM on October 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


Very interesting, but I think it goes deeper and there are other angles. The seeming stiffness noted in early photographs was perhaps not just the subjects' unfamiliarity with the camera, but the camera capturing a facade created for society. It wasn't perhaps that they were unselfconscious as much as it was a different kind of selfconsciousness: for how they would appear to others rather than to themselves if they viewed their own pictures (of course they were posing in portraits but maybe their consciousness hadn't yet caught up to the reality of new technology).

It think it has to do more with the character and behaviour of society in general, and the camera was one tool that changed both collective and individual perception from a more mannered and formal attitude to both studied indifference and actual naturalness.

I believe there is also a certain sense of morality involved. Victorian era people were more likely to be concerned about looking proper and upright, whatever they were actually like, whereas we don't care as much about that - although many of us want to look "cool". I think that is the essence of the photograph - Powell not having any defence or any chance of hiding, I believe the camera actually recorded a deeper vulnerability.

Beans, plates, and overthinking.
posted by blue shadows at 12:21 AM on October 22, 2013


The link discuses the photo as then vs. now, but maybe the contrast is one of "enemy of the state" vs. "willing member of society." The former might require more self-consciousness than the latter.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:01 AM on October 22, 2013


klang, yes the french have an out-of-the-gate lead in this area.
posted by wallstreet1929 at 7:45 AM on October 22, 2013


I am personally in the camp of "this is a happy (??) accident." Like the Devil in a tortilla or something. Uncanny no doubt. Intentional and self-aware? Probably not.
posted by iamkimiam at 8:37 AM on October 22, 2013


Attitude + modern looking clothes + modern looking hair + modern looking facial hair = looking like a modern fashion/serious artist photo.

This is a really good point, because in the expanded picture of Powell, when you begin to see the old-fashioned buttons on the pants, the picture begins to be a little less relatable. Trim Guiteau's beard a bit, in the pic up there that Atom Eyes posts, and put him in a t-shirt, and it's just another guy you'd see at the grocery store (and stay away from).
posted by mittens at 9:38 AM on October 22, 2013


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