The National Portrait Gallery is opening a huge exhibit on Abraham Lincoln. It includes this photograph by Alexander Gardner in 1865, shortly before the president’s assassination, a print made from a glass plate that had cracked.
Art critic David Brown calls it “one of the four or five greatest and most moving photographs ever taken of a human being.”
The crack (which is rendered so crisply that it appears to be an indentation in the paper) both records and predicts. It symbolizes the broken country that Lincoln restored to unity but whose wound he couldn’t erase. It portends the violent, veering trajectory of the bullet that would kill him.
But the crack is only part of the story.
Lincoln’s face is careworn, his expression one of seemingly infinite patience. Some think he has a Mona Lisa smile. He is seated off-center and the light-sepia background is blank. The pose is intermediate between a conventional portrait and a half-body view.
Furthermore, Gardner’s camera catches only Lincoln’s lips, beard and part of his nose in focus. The far shoulder is a featureless blur. His ear — oversize, attentive — is indistinct. Even his left eye, which is as deep and complex as the vortex that took the Pequod down, isn’t quite sharp.
The impression is of Lincoln receding from present tasks into history.