Cara Finnegan & Photographic Presidents

The Power and Mystery of Presidential Photos

This week we were joined by the fascinating Dr. Cara Finnegan, author of the new book Photographic Presidents: Making History From Daguerreotype to Digital.

Listen now:

In her book, Finnegan explores the history of photography through the presidents’ experiences with the evolving medium.

After an introductory story covering the infamous swamp rabbit photograph showing Jimmy Carter “beat back the beast,” we discussed several presidential photographs and their stories, including the recently discovered oldest-known-photograph of a US president (John Quincy Adams), the photograph of a painting of William Henry Harrison that’s so lifelike it still fools people today, and the “spirit photograph” William Mumler took of Mary Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln’s ghost.

This is The Washington Post’s cover breaking the story of Jimmy Carter’s encounter:

And here’s a detail of the actual White House photograph showing the swamp rabbit.

This is the photograph of William Henry Harrison from Metropolitan Museum of Art that has fooled many into believing it was taken from life:

Daguerreotype by Southworth and Hawes, 1850.

Instead it was a photograph of this original painting, at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, or possibly a copy of this painting.

Detail of painting by Albert Gallatin Hoit, 1840, Smithsonian 

Here Mary Lincoln poses for spirit photographer William Mumler, with the “ghost” of Abraham Lincoln appearing behind her.

This engraving of a photograph by Matthew Brady printed in Harper’s Weekly helped send Lincoln to the White House.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Art Resource, NY.

Smithsonian recently acquired this daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams taken by Philip Haas in 1843 – it is the oldest known photograph of a US president.

For the stories behind these photographs and more – including the most politically damaging presidential photograph and the intimate spiritual experience of opening a daguerreotype – listen to the episode wherever you stream podcasts or right here:







  1. October 7, 2021 / 8:26 pm

    It’s sad that the daguerreotype of Harrison is just a photo of a painting. I too believed it was a real daguerreotype for a long time as I have the American Heritage series books of the presidents dated 1968. The books state that the daguerreotype is a real photograph of Harrison. I hope the real one surfaces someday.

    I was excited that the 2nd Haas daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams surfaced in 2017. I read somewhere that there is possibly a third Haas daguerreotype of Adams. The Haas daguerreotypes are some of my favorites. I colorized and AI enhanced many of the Adam’s daguerreotypes. The enhanced Haas daguerreotypes are at the following link: https://yarbs.net/all-things-john-quincy-adams/john-quincy-adams-the-philip-haas-daguerreotypes-enhanced.html

    If only a daguerreotype of a much younger JQA existed.

  2. Cara Finnegan
    October 12, 2021 / 1:38 pm

    Wow, so interesting to see these! Thanks for sharing!

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