What the Camera Sees

If you don't recognize him, who would you guess this young man in the picture to be? A musician posing for an album cover? An actor in a movie? A model on a fashion photoshoot?

This is Lewis Powell in a photograph taken in 1865. Powell was in custody as one of the Lincoln assassination co-conspirators. He was convicted of the attempted assassination of Secretary of State William Seward on the same night Lincoln was killed.

Michael Sacasas takes a deeper look at the photograph, which seems altogether too modern, in the context of how most portraits looked in 1865. Usually it is fairly obvious how old such pictures are because of the way the subjects are uncomfortable with the camera. After all, it was a fairly new invention at the time. But Powell is staring death in the face, and doesn't care about the camera's eye on him and doesn't feel obligated to cooperate with the photographer. It's certainly not a normal setting for a portrait. There's much more in the article at PetaPIxel, which, in addition to analyzing the picture, tells Powell's story.

(Image credit: Alexander Gardner, colored by Mads Madsen)


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That's a lot of explanation for the fact that we're just not used to seeing old-timey pictures in colour. Plus, we expect old-timey pictures to have stilted and uncomfortable poses.
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