About This Work
The coins and bills from which these portraits were photographed are history books in disguise. They bear witness to change: physical, historical and philosophical. Our perception of these presidents has changed over time, as have these artifacts which carry their images.
These images have traveled a circuitous path. Each began as a portrait drawn, painted, or photographed directly from their living subject. These portraits were then rendered, as line drawings for bills, or as sculptural reliefs for coins.
These renderings were then greatly reduced, and used to make printing plates or minting dyes, which were subsequently used to produce the bills and coins. They were endowed with monetary value, and sent out into the world.
They have been passed from person to person, place to place, past to present. Spent and saved, gained and lost, each has been marked by its own unfathomable journey.
Technical Information - a Journey Continued
A miniature spotlight was positioned with the sharply focused filament of the bulb grazing the surface of the coin. The slight ridge on the edge of the coin created the initial shadow, allowing the features of the portrait to be lit in bright relief. The portraits on the bills were made the same way, with the light source less sharply focused.
The resulting 4x5” negatives were then projected by means of a photographic enlarger to make 20x24” silver gelatin prints. These prints were subsequently scanned digitally and enlarged again to make the archival pigment prints in this exhibition.
In the case of the 40x50” prints, the bills have been enlarged by 3,500%, and the coins have been enlarged by ratios from 6000% to 10,000%. At this scale the coins would average 6 feet in diameter, and the bills would be nearly 8 feet tall by 18 feet wide.
The coins and bills were photographed at extremely high magnification with a 4x5” view camera and black and white film (the coin an inch or two in front of the camera lens, and the film as much as 16” behind the lens).
SF Chronicle Coverage
The pop-up exhibition for CURRENCY was highlighted in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 15, 2019.
The article offered a detailed history of the work, as well as documenting more of my process in creating them.
CBS News CoverageOn July 28, 2019, Currency was featured on CBS Sunday Morning.
According to the site, "Since the 1980s, Seth Dickerman has been photographing the portraits of presidents that appear on our currency – the stoic profiles on bills and coins that are so familiar, but which look strangely new under his camera lens. With magnifications of up to 10,000 percent, Dickerman’s portraits reveal the nicks and scrapes on faces that have weathered years of transactions."
Here's the whole video segment:
My interest in images of presidents began in childhood. In the early 1960’s, iconic images of American presidents were ubiquitous. We didn’t have the constant stream of dramatic imagery then that we have now - there were fewer idols, fewer heroes.
The Presidency was generally respected and celebrated. It was a simpler and more optimistic time in America. By the 1960's much changed. The Viet Nam war raged on, and Richard Nixon was president. I began photographing Nixon from television and newspapers and have been exploring presidential imagery ever since.
The seed of this particular project was planted on a spring day in 1986, when I was struck by the dignity of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s portrait on a silver dime.
This was during the administration of Ronald Reagan, whose cheerful portraits seemed to me to be those of a fictional character, at best. I decided then to photograph FDR on his dime, in part to illustrate the contrast with Reagan.
The tainted election of a smirking George W. Bush in 2000 brought what one might have thought to be the ultimate insult to the institution of the presidency. I began to look more deeply at the presidents on our currency - a rather obvious link between money and power. I made the 10 photographs in this series, printing them as 20x24” silver-gelatin prints.
I had thought the project finished - until the shocking and tainted election of Donald Trump in 2016 induced me to revisit the project.
I have used digital tools to go deeper into the work, by exposing greater detail, by increasing scale, and by further manipulating light and shadow in ways that I could not do in the darkroom.
When the 20x24’s were first shown in San Francisco, in 2000, it did not strike me as especially significant that these images of presidents were all of white men. Today, 19 years later, the significance of this is painfully apparent. Despite setbacks, much progress has been made since then - and we clearly have good reason to believe that a female presidency is at last in sight.
May we recover from this benighted administration, and learn from our past!