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Inauguration of James Buchanan, President of the United States, at the east front of the U. S. Capitol, March 4, 1857 (photo via Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Montgomery Meigs Papers)

The first known photograph of a United States presidential inauguration was taken on March 4, 1857, during the swearing-in of 15th President James Buchanan. Captured by John Wood, the photographer for the Architect of the Capitol from 1856 to 1861, the shot depicts a Capitol building still under construction at the time; the stone yard visible in the foreground is covered with wooden boards that served as a platform for the expectant crowd.

Wood’s image is also a testament to a pivotal period in the early history of photography: the discovery of the wet-plate collodion method, the first practical photographic process to allow for more than one copy of a picture to be made. Invented in 1851 by the British sculptor and photographer Frederick Scott Archer, the method involved coating a glass plate with a mixture of a soluble iodide and a collodion solution.

Though complex and requiring a portable darkroom, the collodion process was a significant upgrade on its predecessor: Henry Fox Talbot’s calotype method, which necessitated longer exposure times and produced less-sharp, paper negatives. Compared to the earlier daguerreotype, which yielded unique positive images that could not be duplicated, Archer’s discovery was also relatively inexpensive and allowed for reproducibility.

Suddenly, crisp captures of landmark moments — such as a presidential inauguration — could be faithfully documented and quickly disseminated, ushering a new era in the life of the photographic medium.

Wood was hired as a “photographic draftsman” for the Capitol expansion project, tasked with photographing architectural drawings so they could be replicated. In fact, his images were often distributed as a way to acquire political and financial support for large-scale public works projects. According to the Library of Congress, Wood viewed his work as documentary photography and a means of channeling Emersonian ideals of America as a place of “beginnings, of projects, of designs and expectations.”

Wood’s photograph is among a group of free-use archival images, documents, drawings, and engravings related to past presidential inaugurations made available by the Library of Congress. On the occasion of the swearing-in of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris today, the library’s selection offers an opportunity to explore the traditional ceremony from its earliest days to the present, including gems such as a photo of President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter dancing at an inaugural ball.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...