For Lincoln’s Birthday: The Lincoln Gallery at Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, 100 Photos of Abraham Lincoln, from the collection of Stephan Lorant.
I was honored to frame and hang these photos, not only once for display, but a second time for the permanent installation. If you are local and have the opportunity, the Lincoln Gallery is open for viewing during Library hours. The photos are not originals, but there is no other collection like it.
In February 2015 I installed a rare and unique exhibit at my local public library, the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall in Carnegie. I transformed the Reception Hall, where I’ve performed my poetry readings and attended and supported and photographed many other events at the library, into “The Lincoln Gallery” as I permanently framed and hung a collection of 100 prints of photos of Abraham Lincoln. I made the front page of my local paper as I was working!
Abraham Lincoln came to prominence as a public figure in the 1840s, at the dawn of commercial photography, and from the beginning—even before all our modern day communications and social networking—he understood the importance of having his image in front of the people, though he famously laughed at his “homeliness” and even called himself “ugly”. But the first photo in the collection is a print of an 1847 daguerreotype of the young lawyer who was Springfield, Illinois’ Whig representative to the United States Congress, and between that date and 1861, when he arrived in Washington to give his first inaugural address and take office for his first term as president, the collection contains nearly 40 images of Lincoln, lawyer, politician, senator, presidential nominee, and president-elect, in all known forms of photography at the time. Most of those were his own initiative to go to the local photographer’s studio and have a portrait made; after he was president he also had portraits made and others also sought him out.
The art and craft of capturing images on glass and metal plates and then on various films grew as innovators experimented and refined known techniques for less cumbersome equipment, less complicated processes and faster and faster exposures. Viewing the consecutive images in the Lincoln gallery shows the change from the stiff unsmiling poses to relaxed and less formal compositions, and the development of photographic portraiture distinguishing itself from the centuries-established art of the painted portrait, and also began to edge into news coverage, which had long been the province of illustrators and engravers.
The years and the war over which Lincoln presided were the first to be recorded in photographs. Photographic techniques and processes evolved to capture the horrors of the Civil War, and while the war was fought on farms and fields literally in the back yards of America, for the first time in history photographers brought back realistic images of battles and battlefields to those who were not present. Sadly, photography also recorded the photos of the first president to be assassinated in office, and a rare photo of President Lincoln in his casket is the last photo in the collection.
Like many rare and historic collections, the photos have a long and circuitous route from “there” to “here”.
These photographs were made from copy negatives owned by photojournalist Stefan Lorant, author of among other books Pittsburgh: the Story of an All American City and Lincoln: A Picture Story of His Life. Lorant had quite a career as a photojournalist and filmmaker in his native Hungary and was imprisoned in 1939 by the Nazi regime for his work and views. While a prisoner, Lorant chose a German translation of Lincoln’s speeches and writings from the cart of books delivered from the prison library, beginning his lifelong fascination with Lincoln. Lorant was soon released and emigrated to the U.S., pursuing his interest in Lincoln and collecting photographs of him. His pictorial biography of Lincoln was first published in 1941, less than a year after coming to this country.
Locally, Norman Schumm had been a Navy pilot and eventually became a corporate pilot for PNC Bank, but was also a devoted photographer. Norm met Stefan Lorant through one of Norm’s aerial photos of Pittsburgh, and worked with Lorant in his photographer capacity on three editions (1975, 1980 and 1999) of Pittsburgh: the Story of an All American City.
In 1997, Lorant contacted Norm to print photographs from his collection of Lincoln copy negatives, and as part of the compensation for his work Norm was permitted to print a full set of the 100 Lincoln portraits for himself. The photos in this collection are those 100 prints.
I first worked with these 100 photographs to prepare them for their first exhibit at the ACFL&MH from February through April 2010, above. Norm had only shown the photos once, displayed for an evening at a meeting of the Photographic Section of the Academy of Science and Art of Pittsburgh on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, February 12, 2009. He loaned this collection to the Library & Music Hall to complement the re-opening of the restored Captain Thomas Espy Post No. 153 of the Grand Army of the Republic, housed in the library (and another site to visit for its fascinating contents and stories) in February 2010. Norm had mounted each photo, most 11” x 14” with a few odd sizes and shapes, on two-ply mounting board and added a card containing the number, date and caption from Lorant’s Lincoln. I had mats cut and the library purchased 100 identical 16” x 20” matte-finish black frames and I spent several days moving the caption card onto the mat, situating the photo into the mat, closing up the frames and hanging the images for the temporary display on borrowed wire display panels from a local art organization. When I had only the first dozen done and leaned them against the wall I knew the display would be powerful. When it was all up it was nearly overwhelming at first until I grew accustomed to each of the images.
Last year, the Library & Music Hall purchased the collection from Norm. They were still in their frames, but this time they would be hung permanently and the caption cards updated and corrected where necessary for grammar, punctuation and the occasional detail that could not be understood without the context of the entire Lincoln book. The library needed to purchase its own display panels and we decided to hang them in two courses instead of three to make them easier to view for visitors.
So the preparations of looking for just the right display panels to designing the display on paper, then setting up and printing and trimming the new caption cards led up to taking each image out of its frame, replacing the caption card, cleaning the glass inside and replacing the mat and photo, closing up and adding strap hangers and wire to the back, and finally hanging the photos on the panels in one week.
It was a very big project, but I’m more than pleased to be the one to do the work of hanging it, and be able to study each image as I worked with it. And even though this is the second time I worked with this collection I still found images I hadn’t really noticed before, and have another reason to learn something new.
And not only that, but I’m fortunate that, in my capacity as a freelance commercial artist, I can do things like this for a living. The Library & Music Hall has been one of my regular customers for design and photography for nearly a decade, and the executive director has also supported me in hosting my poetry readings and art exhibits. It’s also one of my favorite places, period, being one of the places I’ve visited regularly since birth.
About the gallery and the Espy post, please read this article in the Tribune-Review.
And here is the article in my local newspaper.
Here are a few more photos of the gallery.
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