The Capitol was still under construction on March 4th, 1857, when photographer John Wood set up his wet plate collodion camera and captured the first known photograph of a US Presidential inauguration.
As President Donald J. Trump is being sworn in, thousands upon thousands of cameras are capturing the event for posterity (and Instagram likes). But in March of 1857, taking a picture was far more difficult than wresting that phablet out of your too-small pocket.
Wood had to use the still-nascent wet plate collodion process—a “photography process of great speed,” to use his words—to capture this photograph of the 15th President of the United States, James Buchanan, being sworn into office. He had to have a “portable” dark room handy to process the glass plate and produce the Albumen print you see above, but it only took a measly 4 seconds to expose—ludicrous speed by 1857 standards.
Interestingly, Wood wasn’t originally hired to photograph the inauguration. He was employed by the Architect of the Capitol under Montgomery C. Meigs to photograph drafts of the building while it was under construction. However, when Meigs was tasked with constructing a platform that people could stand on to watch the 15th president be sworn in, he took the opportunity to build another that Wood could use to photograph Buchanan’s inauguration.
Wood would go on to photograph maps during the Civil War, but he will always be remembered best for this photograph: a true first for the world of photography.
Image credits: Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress.