Abe Lincolns everywhere

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Photographer T.J. Kirkpatrick documented a convention of Abraham Lincoln lookalikes

He traveled to Mississippi for a meeting of the Association of Lincoln Presenters

CNN  — 

Picture a mansion on an estate that, before the Civil War, was a thriving Southern cotton plantation. Entering the lavish home is a tall, lanky, bearded man wearing a suit and a stovepipe hat. Sound familiar?

Next, another man dressed as Abraham Lincoln arrives – also tall and bearded – with the same hat. Then a third. And a fourth.

Yep, what we have here is an honest-to-goodness convention of Lincoln lookalikes.

Photographer T.J. Kirkpatrick documented this annual meeting of the Association of Lincoln Presenters in April. His images remind us how iconic the 16th President of the United States continues to be, 149 years after his assassination.

T.J. Kirkpatrick

“It was certainly quirky,” said Kirkpatrick, who especially enjoyed reactions the Lincolns would get in public by people who weren’t part of the group. “They’d be surprised to see one Lincoln. Then, once they realized there were 20 more of them, it was like, ‘Oh my God!’ “

The Lincolns were joined by other lookalikes of the same era, including women dressed as first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, complete with petticoats and huge, colorful gowns.

After arriving at the mansion at Lansdowne Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, some of the Lincolns unbuttoned their long suit coats and sat down for dinner. Kirkpatrick photographed the group at the dining room table.

“A lot of the conversation was just them catching up about their kids and grandkids,” Kirkpatrick said. “There was this air of history hanging over the conversation because of the setting – and because of their costumes.”

Actually, Kirkpatrick gets paid to photograph the real President of the United States. As a photojournalist with White House credentials, he regularly takes news assignments that put him in the Oval Office just a few feet from President Barack Obama.

Kirkpatrick’s trip down south was part of a larger project surrounding conventions in general.

“The idea is to look at people sort of gathering around their interests,” he explained. “When they come together – when they kind of join their flock – I find a certain honesty in those moments. I hope the pictures that I’m making reveal the community they’re creating around this particular interest.”

Kirkpatrick has photographed plenty of Civil War battle re-enactments. You might say the Lincoln convention is a geekier kind of re-enactment – for political history buffs.

“By and large they take their roles fairly seriously,” he said. “In general, everybody was in their suit and top hat for four days.” That’s commitment.

In one of Kirkpatrick’s favorite images from the shoot, an “Abe” steals a kiss from a “Mary” outside a hotel ballroom. “It’s a very human moment – a very honest interaction between husband and wife,” he said. “And it happens to be that they’re dressed as these historical characters.”

The convention came with jarring visual anachronisms.

For example, it was impossible to ignore the sight of Abe Lincoln on a cell phone. And two Lincolns using digital cameras to snap photos of each other isn’t something you see every day.

The convention also provoked stark observations. In fact, the irony of an ex-slave plantation hosting an event honoring the man who freed America’s slaves wasn’t lost on Kirkpatrick.

“They had a little patch of cotton on the property where people who go on tours can actually pick cotton,” Kirkpatrick said. Some of the re-enactors decided to try it.

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    “It was weird seeing a bunch of Lincolns gathered around picking cotton,” he said.

    Also during the plantation tour, one conventioneer – portraying African-American abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass – commented about the trees in the area.

    “I wonder if anyone was ever hung from these branches. These trees could tell some stories,” Kirkpatrick recalled the man saying.

    The comment, Kirkpatrick said, “gave a broader context to this gathering – that there was so much history that gets ignored or brushed under the table when we see a person portraying Lincoln … or we go to a Civil War re-enactment. It’s a very thin slice of the reality of those people’s lives at that time.”

    “It wasn’t a morbid observation, I think it was a very honest one,” Kirkpatrick said. “There’s a lot that we don’t know, that doesn’t get talked about – certainly from that time period – that should be.

    T.J. Kirkpatrick is a documentary photographer and multimedia producer based in Washington. You can follow him on Tumblr.