A man who knew Thomas Jefferson

By Razib Khan | February 6, 2013 2:36 am

I find the photo above of John Quincy Adams striking because it is of a man who was born in 1767. The era of the Revolutionary War is one of paintings (albeit, not contemporary ones). And yet here we look upon the face of an old man who was alive and self-aware during that period, and who grew into adult when the Founders still flourished. The photograph is of poor quality and lacking in color. Arguably it transmits less precise detail of the features of John Quincy Adams than a painted portrait, but photographs capture something ineffable (or more accurately they replicate physical details which we are unable to elucidate verbally, but which are recognized by our innate cognitive system). John Quincy Adams is long dead, but the verisimilitude of the image brings him back to life in some way due to the reflexes awakened in my brain. I see the man, so the man must be.

The power of photographic technology should make us wary of those claims that science and technology drain the wonder from the world by making the mysterious comprehensible, and the numinous prosaic. Our lives are magical, we simply don’t know it.

  • chris_T_T

    This is too cool; I wasn’t aware any photos of any of the founders existed.

    As you said, photos make the past real in a way art or text cannot. This is Adams, the man, as he was at a particular time.

    Edit: Opps, mistook for his father.

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    The website Shorpy.com has great examples of early photographs. I have a framed pic from there from 1850. Good Civil War photos too.

    • http://twitter.com/Grrrowler Todd

      Gee thanks…you’ve just taken all the free time I have for the next week, which will now be spent looking at the amazing pics on that site.

      • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

        Yeah, I remember when I found it I spent days and days with my wife just looking. We literally went through the entire site! If you get tired of too many of a particular kind you can click a category. Some of the war scenes from the Civil War are haunting.

    • http://www.facebook.com/george.jones.106902 George Jones

      Glad to see you are appreciative of dags and maybe …. their makers. Many makers and their assistants died as a result of their profession from mercury poisoning.

      As equally important to the dag subject (Adams) is the the dag maker, the daguerreotypist. In this case, Phillip Haas made this Adams dag in 1843. http://www.metmuseum.org/pubs/journals/1/pdf/1512728.pdf.bannered.pdf

      Maureen Taylor with her book, “The Last Muster” is the definitive source on daguerreotypes (dags) of famous / infamous figures from the Revolutionary War period. http://www.maureentaylor.com/current-projects/

      Maureen is the Nation’s foremost historical photo detective in IDing people from dags and old photographs based on facial recognition analysis, clothing analysis from the period, photo case analysis, photographer’s marking and name, dag size, etc.

      On a more contemporary note, the British POBI Team and others are embarked on a 3D Facial Facial Recognition project http://www.peopleofthebritishisles.org/nl5.pdf

      More on facial shape phenotypes here: http://www.plosgenetics.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pgen.1002932

  • SWPL_Bro

    Have you ever seen these color photographs from Czarist Russia in the first decade of the 20th century?


    No matter how many times I’ve seen them certain ones give me the chills, and I stare at them for several minutes at a time. The portrait of the last Emir of Bukhara is endlessly fascinating for example.

    Such high quality color photographs from a time when they were rare forcefully convey that this was a real place filled with people who lived lives very alien to our own.

  • http://www.higherediplaw.com Blaine T. Bettinger

    You should check out “The Last Muster – Images of the Revolutionary War Generation,” by genealogist Maureen Taylor. It’s full of pictures of people who were alive during the Revolutionary War. http://www.amazon.com/Last-Muster-Images-Revolutionary-Generation/dp/1606350552

  • http://twitter.com/alexbenjm alexbenjm

    I love those early period photographs of people born in the 18th century for those precise reasons. They occupy that unique transition between the periods of painted portraits and actual photographs. Take Queen Victoria, her earliest portraits were painted, decidedly casting her in a more flattering light versus her later portraits which were photographs. One thing that fascinates me is that didn’t John Adams had an audience with King George III, so here we have a photograph of a man who conversed with George himself.

    If only Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington lived till the age of camera…

  • http://twitter.com/Ed_Realist EdReal



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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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