Documenting the President
  • Although James K. Polk was the first president to be photographed, it wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln ran for office that a president (or presidential candidate) took advantage of photography to promote their ideas and campaign. 
    Since then, presidents have relied on presidential photographers to document their activities in office.
    Watch this short video to better understand how presidential photography can help define a presidency and even an entire era in American politics. 
    Instructional Ideas
    Consult Common Core ELA Literacy Standard 8.2: Analyze the purpose of information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and evaluate the motives (e.g., social, commercial, political) behind its presentation.
    • Consult the “Questions” tab for discussion questions about how historic and modern presidents have used photography to present their ideas and platforms to the public.
    1. What types of photographs do presidents' photographers take and share with the public?

      Recent American presidents have had pictures taken of them working in the Oval Office in the White House, spending time with their families, and giving speeches to the public and to Congress.

    2. Take a look at the Nat Geo video above. How did President Abraham Lincoln present himself in photographs? What do you think his motives may have been in presenting himself this way?

      When campaigning, Lincoln had himself photographed with his hand on a stack of books, associating himself with scholarly and intellectual pursuits.

      During the Civil War, Lincoln was often photographed with members of the military, reinforcing his image as a wartime Commander in Chief.

    3. Take a look at the Nat Geo video above. How did President John F. Kennedy present himself in photographs? What do you think his motives may have been in presenting himself this way?

      "Kennedy was very image savvy," says Don Carleton, of the Center for American History. 

      Images of JFK's presidency often depict the president as a vibrant, healthy, and athletic. Many images include his young children, and President Kennedy and first lady Jacqueline Kennedy appear as doting parents.

      The Kennedy campaign may have wanted to present the president as part of a down-to-earth, stable family that Americans could both relate to and respect.

    4. Presidential photographers often have to veer between casual imagery and serious historical documentary. How is this addressed in the video?

      Cecil Stoughton, President Kennedy's photographer, captured a typical campaign stop in 1963, with Kennedy and the first lady smiling and waving to crowds in Dallas, Texas, from their convertible limousine.

      President Kennedy was shot in that limousine, and Stoughton's responsibilities changed dramatically. He captured the tumult as the president was rushed to a nearby hostpial, and was the only photographer on Air Force One as Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson took the oath of office.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    Abraham Lincoln Noun

    (1809-1865) 16th American president.

    James K. Polk Noun

    (1795-1849) 11th American president.

    John F. Kennedy Noun

    (1917-1963) 35th president of the United States.

    photography Noun

    art and science of producing still or moving images using the chemical reaction of light on a sensitive surface, such as film or an electronic sensor.

    sitting president Noun

    incumbent president or president who is currently in office.