Photographic Presidents

Making History from Daguerreotype to Digital
Author: Cara A. Finnegan
Defining the Chief Executive via flash powder and selfie sticks
Cloth – $110
Paper – $22.95
eBook – $14.95
Publication Date
Paperback: 05/18/2021
Cloth: 05/18/2021
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About the Book

Lincoln’s somber portraits. Lyndon Johnson’s swearing in. George W. Bush’s reaction to learning about the 9/11 attacks. Photography plays an indelible role in how we remember and define American presidents. Throughout history, presidents have actively participated in all aspects of photography, not only by sitting for photos but by taking and consuming them. Cara A. Finnegan ventures from a newly discovered daguerreotype of John Quincy Adams to Barack Obama’s selfies to tell the stories of how presidents have participated in the medium’s transformative moments. As she shows, technological developments not only changed photography but introduced new visual values that influence how we judge an image. At the same time, presidential photographs—as representations of leaders who symbolized the nation—sparked public debate on these values and their implications.

An original journey through political history, Photographic Presidents reveals the intertwined evolution of an American institution and a medium that continues to define it.

Watch the virtual book launch featuring Cara Finnegan in conversation with Michael Shaw

* Open Access Edition funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

About the Author

Cara A. Finnegan is a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Making Photography Matter: A Viewer’s History from the Civil War to the Great Depression and Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs.

Also by this author

Making Photography Matter cover


"Captivating . . . . Broad in scope and rich in anecdotal detail, this will please photography and history buffs." --Publishers Weekly

"Informative, knowledgeable, and enjoyable . . . . Photographic Presidents is a valuable addition to presidential history." --Foreword Reviews

"A valuable resource for students of both American politics and the history of photography." --Booklist

"Fascinating." --Air Mail

"Very interesting and informative . . . Finnegan has covered a lot of ground in this well-illustrated book. She traces the development of the photographic medium and techniques with the history of visual communications and the image of the presidents, and has done it extremely well." --Journal of American Culture

"Well-written and engaging . . . What will be the next step in how presidents become photographic? Finnegan cannot—and does not try to—answer that question, but the fact that the question resonates in my head after putting down her book is a testament to how thought-provoking Photographic Presidents is." --Journal of American History

"Entertaining yet informative. . . Photographic Presidents is an excellent book that brings context and depth to certain decision points within history and how photography shaped them. It takes on a concept often overlooked by scholars as simply there, and moves it front and center into the discussion." --Congress & the Presidency


"Today, the camera, the press, and the presidency are inextricably linked. But how did we get here and, more importantly, how does that evolution inform the present visual and rhetorical landscape? Based on her longstanding research, writing, and commentary as a 'presidential visual scholar,' there is no one better equipped to compose this picture than Cara Finnegan. This narrative weaves the evolution of a technology, a communications medium, and the highest office in the land into a vivid historical panorama. In current times, in an atmosphere in which visual politics can be all too affecting and effecting, Photographic Presidents places the visual presidency into a necessary frame."--Michael Shaw, publisher, Reading the Pictures