Cover for FINNEGAN: Photographic Presidents: Making History from Daguerreotype to Digital. Click for larger image

Photographic Presidents

Making History from Daguerreotype to Digital

Defining the Chief Executive via flash powder and selfie sticks

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.

"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


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.

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