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Intriguing curatorial selections and thoughtful captions elevate the small, rather muddy images in the National Portrait Gallery exhibit “Lincoln’s Contemporaries.” 

The exhibit is built around a collection of cartes de visitean early form of collectible photograph that became popular in the 1860s, roughly a quarter-century after the birth of photography. It spotlights 20 figures from the Civil War era, and many of those featured range beyond the familiar military and political personages of the time. 

Some names, if not faces, are familiar, coming from the worlds of letters (Nathaniel Hawthorne), technology (Samuel F.B. Morse) and royalty (the prince who would become King Edward VII of England). 

Others, though, are essentially unknown to the public today. Many of these sitters hailed from the arts, including actors Kate BatemanEdward ForestMaggie Mitchell and Lester Wallack, soprano Isabella Hinckley, painter Daniel Huntington, and pianist Teresa Carreño

The images on display—modern prints made from original negatives—are roughly the size of modern-day business cards. Yet despite their diminutive size, the photographers from Matthew Brady’s studio who made them invariably framed their subjects in full-length or three-quarter-length poses, making the subject’s head especially small. From today’s perspective, this makes little sense. 

Making matters worse, the sepia-toned prints, by their nature, aren’t especially detailed, and some are strewn with splotches and imperfections. This is worsened by the studio’s penchant for photographing dark-suited clients—even the humble-looking heir to the throne—in front of dark backgrounds. The exceptions to this pattern stand out impressively, such as the image of Forest, in which the dark-clothed actor poses against a bright backdrop. 

Despite the pitfalls of the format, some sitters’ personalities do show through. Actor Edwin Booth, who faced deep personal challenges even beyond his brother John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Lincoln, looks particularly melancholic in a dual portrait with his daughter, Edwina

And the exhibit’s final image captures the showman P.T. Barnum just as his mouth is beginning to curl into a cockeyed smirk — a look that continues to resonate a century and a half later, amid our carnival-like presidential campaign season. 

Through May 19, 2019, at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F St.,  NW. 11:30-7:00 daily. Free. (202) 633-8300.