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The first photograph of a presidential inauguration required a mobile darkroom

first presidential inauguration photo
Library of Congress / John Wood and Montgomery C. Meigs
Today’s inauguration was filled with smartphone snapshots and selfies, but nearly 160 years ago, while the U.S. Capitol was still under construction, the first known photo of a presidential inauguration was taken as James Buchanan was sworn in as the 15th president of the United States.

The photograph, originally shared by Time, was taken on March 4, 1857 — presidential inaugurations were not held on January 20 until 1937. John Wood used the wet plate process for the image, a technique that, at the time, was only six years old. Wet plates required the photographer to bring along a mobile darkroom to process the images onsite, but the method was enough of a technological advancement at the time to be behind several “first” photographs, from landmarks and wars to that 15th presidential inauguration.

Wood, the photographer, was actually working for the Architect of the Capitol. He was hired by Montgomery C. Meigs, an engineer and army general who oversaw the construction of portions of the Capito, the General Post Office, and the Washington Aqueduct. Wood’s primary job was to photograph the architectural drawings so that they could be easily reproduced — hauling along a wet plate camera and portable darkroom to do the job that today’s scanners and smartphone cameras can tackle.

According to Time, when that same engineer was asked to build a platform for the inauguration, he also built one so that Wood could photograph the event. Wet plate photography still required long exposures, so in Wood’s image, the movement of the crowd is blurred while those seated on the platform or standing still to watch the event look as crisp as their top hats. Behind the platform, the image shows the east front of the U.S. Capitol building.

Buchanan was the last president to serve before the Civil War, which broke out about a month after his term ended while Abraham Lincoln was in office. Wood later moved from shooting the architectural drawings of the Capitol to reproducing maps for General George McClellan during the war.

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