This Was The First President To Be Photographed

Looking at an old photograph can be chilling, as if you've been given the opportunity to peer through time itself. Among the first wars to be photographed, for example, was the Mexican-American War in the 1840s, per Artstor, and photographs of many subsequent military conflicts changed the way we view the horrors of combat, not to mention any number of other important historical events. Paralleling this came the rise of the portrait, which was previously the domain of painting. For the very first time, photo portraits allowed the likeness of historically prominent people to be recorded in history.

Per Smithsonian Magazine, Conrad Heyer, a veteran of the Revolutionary War and 103 at the time his picture was taken in 1852, is believed to be the oldest-born person to have ever been photographed. It was a relatively-unknown early innovator in the field of photographer, though, named Robert Cornelius, whose image ranks among the earliest known portraits known to survive, according to My Modern Met. Before the Heyer photo, and a few short years after the Cornelius portrait, however, came the first known portrait of an American president. Which commander-in-chief holds the distinction of being the first to be photographed? Depending on who you ask, it's a two-way tie. 

The first presidential photo

According to History Colored, the oldest known surviving photograph of an American president is a portrait of John Quincy Adams (on the left) dating from 1843. The thing is, though, this picture of Adams was taken when he was out of office, but not out of politics. Aged 75 at the time, Adams was serving as a Representative of Massachusetts's 8th congressional district, and he would die only five years later. 

However, beating Adams' picture by two whole years is a portrait of William Henry Harrison (on the right), taken on the day he was inaugurated as the 9th American president in 1841. 

Although it's known for certain that a picture of Harrison was taken for the inauguration, the original has been lost. What survives is a daguerreotype (an early kind of photograph) of a hyper-realistic painting of Harrison, using the picture as its source material. 

So, who came first, Harrison or Adams? Harrison is known to have been the first president ever photographed, while Adams' photo is the earliest known surviving photograph of a U.S. president, even though it was taken after he left office. Either way, it remains a marvel that we know what two important men from over 150 years ago looked like in flesh and blood, rather than in oil and canvas.