Day 173 of Colourisation Project – October 27
Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.
It is a sad fact that one of the few photos of Lewis Powell, son of a Baptist preacher, is a mugshot taken in 1865 by Scottish born, photographer Alexander Gardner. That mugshot (today’s colorization image) has achieved an almost canonical place in the study of photography and possibly of the human condition.
Not knowing anything about the story behind the image, you would be forgiven for thinking it is a contemporary, Calvin Klein fashion shot. But it isn’t.
Knowing what little we do know, when we look at this iconic image, we are left with a haunting perhaps confronting image. On close inspection we notice that this handsome young man oozing with attitude and staring straight down the lens of the camera has his hands manacled. Why? What is he thinking?
This image is a portrait or rather a mugshot of 21 year old Lewis Thornton Powell (aka Lewis Payne or Paine). It is hard to believe that this clean shaven, young man was one of the conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and responsible for the failed attempt to murder Secretary of State, William Seward. The photograph was taken on board the ironclad, USS Saugus, where the conspirators were for a time confined. On July 7, 1865, just eight weeks after Gardner shot this photo, Powell and three others were executed for their involvement in the Lincoln assassination.
Roland Barthes reflecting on this photo in his seminal work, Camera Lucida, experiences a foreboding temporal paradox: “He is dead and he is going to die…”
Barthes contends there is a distinction between two planes of an image. The first plane is the studium: the manifest subject, meaning and context of the photograph: a classical body of information pertaining to its history and cultural elements. The second plane is the punctum: that wholly subjective aspect of a photograph that holds our gaze and pricks our consciousness in a way not necessarily intended by the author.
“The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: this will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose, the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence.”
It is this notion of an ‘anterior future’ that makes this compelling photograph stay with you for a long time.
Photographer Alexander Gardner, born this day, October 27, 1821 and known as the father of Civil War photography, achieved fame for his unsettling photos of slain soldiers at Antietam — history’s first such photographs. He also took what is considered to be the last photograph of President Abraham Lincoln, just 5 days before his assassination. Gardner individually photographed all the conspirators in the Lincoln assassination, as well as their execution by hanging. Gardner must have known he was on to something with Powell’s photo as Powell’s photos were the only ones he bothered to copyright.
* Various documents and sources list Gardner’s birthdate as either October 27 or October 21. I am going with the American Civil War: The Definitive Encyclopedia and Document Collection which says he was born October 27, 1821.
“I believed it was my duty.” – Lewis Thornton Powell
“It is designed to speak for itself. As mementos of the fearful struggle through which the country has just passed, it is confidently hoped that it will possess an enduring interest.” – Alexander Gardner – [Regarding his work]