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Eugene Richards: Looking for Lincoln’s Legacy

Following the Tracks of Lincoln: A Photographer’s Journey

This video is part of our Exposure series, in which National Geographic photographers share the stories behind their images. Listen to photographer Eugene Richards talk about his assignment: looking for Lincoln’s legacy in our modern times.

You may find this hard to believe, but there are moments of utter terror when working as a photo editor at National Geographic magazine.

When I was handed a story about the death of one of the most revered figures in American history, President Abraham Lincoln, it took me about 17 seconds to figure out that I was going to need to connect 150 years … through photographs.

“Easy!” you say.

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Hastily constructed of pine boards in April 1865, this catafalque supported the casket of Abraham Lincoln while his body lay in state in the Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C. It is now kept in a specially constructed display area in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center. All Photographs by Eugene Richards

But not so. These were my thoughts: I need to connect a historical assassination to subjects photographed in the present day—that’s a time span of 54,750 days, with a whole lot of history in between. I can’t just dip into the wealth of historical stock images at the Library of Congress. I need a historian and a visionary. I need a photographer who comes not only equipped with empathy and an understanding of today’s social issues but someone who also has the ability to create visual parallels between present and past.

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A rally is held at Tower City Center at Public Square in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, on October 22 for the 19th annual National Day of Protest to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and Criminalization of a Generation. Protestors then marched past the justice center and jail.

And if that isn’t scary enough, this photographer needs to tell a present-day story about the history of a country divided over race and a country rebuilt after being ripped apart by war—a story about a United States with over 1.5 million soldiers dead, maimed, and missing. I need a photographer who can take all of this and make strong new images—images you’ll want to look at. No small feat.

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The gloves that Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre on the night he was assassinated are housed at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Illinois.

Then there’s terror number two. Or maybe “intimidation” is a better word to express how I feel when I’m asked to work with a living legend. Fortunately for me, Eugene Richards—one of the most accomplished documentarians of social injustice and awareness—could not have been a better match for a visual essay combining past and present and the search for Lincoln’s legacy. Not only that, but Richards is also one amazingly sweet, humble, and downright lovely person.

Historians have called Lincoln’s 20-day funeral—traveling through seven states, over 400 cities, and along 1,654 miles of train tracks—”the greatest funeral in the history of the United States.” Eugene Richards has done it justice.

My terrors, for now, have been quelled.


Eugene Richards is a filmmaker and the author of 15 books. His work has been exhibited in over 40 solo shows, published in Life, the New York Times Magazine, Esquire, the New Yorker, and Mother Jones. Two of his books, Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue and Dorchester Days, are cited as among the best photographic books ever published. See more of his work on his website.

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