When Greta Pratt photographed the annual meeting of the Association of Lincoln Presenters in 2004, she plunked a chair down in a field for attendees to sit in and told them, “I want you to summon up your inner Lincoln. Give me your ideal of Lincoln.”
Each of the men had begun impersonating the president for their own reasons. Some had been told they resembled him; others identified with certain aspects of his life, whether his personal faith or mental health problems; still others admired his humble background, the way he had pulled himself up by his proverbial bootstraps. And, unsurprisingly, despite the fact that they all sported the token black suit and top hat, the Lincoln each man conjured was unmistakably different.
Their portraits, now on view at the Chrysler Museum in Virginia, speak less to the man behind the myth than they do to the myth itself. Since his death 150 years ago today, the memory of the 16th president of the United States has cast a spell over the American imagination, prompting countless documentaries, biographies, and feature films that build up his sainthood. Even though the people Pratt photographed are all white males, her images show how Lincoln’s multifaceted character still resonates with diverse individuals, letting anyone feel a part of this all-American story. His complexity made him an icon.
“The country is made up of individuals, but when you put them all together, what ties them together?” Pratt mused in an interview with Seth Feman, the Chrysler’s manager of interpretation, in the spring issue of the museum’s members’ magazine. “It’s their understanding of their history, the sense of a shared history. And in America, in this day and age, I think Lincoln is right there at the top of the list of people who define that shared history.”