Kevin Briggs Photography

First United States Inaugural Photo

Kevin Briggs
Inauguration of James Buchanan, President of the United States, at the east front of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1857. Montgomery C. Meigs Papers—Library of Congress

Inauguration of James Buchanan, President of the United States, at the east front of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1857. Montgomery C. Meigs Papers—Library of Congress

With the United States having just witnessed the inaugural of the 45th president, I thought a little photographic history might be in order.

It was March 4th of 1857 when photographer John Wood prepared himself to photograph the inaugural of Pres. James Buchanan, the nation’s 15th. Utilizing a wet-plate collodion camera, Wood went down in history as the first photographer to cover a US Presidential inauguration.

As was reported last month by Liz Ronk of Time Magazine, “The wet collodion process, which was invented in 1851, gave photographers the ability to make direct contact prints from a glass negative. This process did have its difficulties — a portable darkroom was needed to accompany the photographer and long exposures were still often necessary. But the new process was enough of an improvement that it allowed photographers to document many landmark events for the first time, and the period saw photographic milestones ranging from the first war photography to groundbreaking nature photography.”

As one can see from carefully examining the photograph itself, the Capitol Building was still under construction when the photo was taken. The photographing of the construction of the Capitol actually constituted Wood’s primary job; the photographic documentation of the inauguration of Pres. Buchanan simply represented icing on the cake, as it were.