Face value: Portraits on money

Increasing money's face value
Increasing money's face value 03:32

To Seth Dickerman, a handful of coins is much more than spare change. "They show all kinds of nicks and scrapes," he said. "Each of these coins has been through its own unfathomable journey. You know, we don't know where it's been."

Dickerman owns a print shop in downtown San Francisco. But since the 1980s he's been photographing presidents on coins and bills.

CBS News

"I think it was 1986 actually when I was looking at a dime with a picture of Roosevelt on it," he told correspondent John Blackstone. "And I just thought he was very dignified. And I didn't find that the occupants of the White House had such dignity at the time. And that's where it started. I decided to photograph presidents on currency."

The U.S. Mint decided to put presidents on coins in 1909, replacing the Indian head penny with an image of Abraham Lincoln. Up until then, the U.S. didn't put politicians on money, concerned it would make them look like the ruling monarchs on European currency.

Now we may barely notice the presidential portraits. But on Dickerman's walls, you can't miss them.

"When we were kids, you could buy something for a penny!" Dickerman said.

"So, is this trying to give some respect back to both Lincoln and the penny perhaps?" asked Blackstone.

"I think so, yes. I hope so."

The process begins with a camera older than most of the bills and coins themselves. "This is a beautiful, old, eight-by-ten portrait camera," he said. "It's about 100 years old. It weighs about 1,000 pounds. But it's a beautiful machine for making portraits."

The camera allows him to enlarge the image as much as 10,000 percent.

Seth Dickerman's portraits of presidents that appear on our currency, magnified up to 10,000%, make the stoic profiles that are so familiar look strangely new. Seth Dickerman

"We have this projection light focused onto the coin, and it's pretty flat now, the way it's lit. But if we just tilt it, we can see the shadows start to grow until it gets pretty sweet," Dickerman said.

"I just love all the patterns. You can see the strange things that have happened to him over time."

George Washington, larger than life. Photographer Seth Dickerman with correspondent John Blackstone. CBS News

"You say 'happened to him,' it's happened to the coin," Blackstone laughed. "So, it's not just the presidents; it's not just photography. Currency means something to you?"

"Yeah. Currency, that is what we call bills and coins, and there's also current events. They are still current. They still have something to tell us. And in particular, these men were absolutely the right guy at the right time. You know, without Lincoln, I don't know what would have happened."

The prints cost anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000. The enlargements reveal every detail, every flaw.

"When you're confronted with something so much larger than you, it gives it a certain power," he said.

And for Seth Dickerman, that is their real face value.

President Ulysses S. Grant. Seth Dickerman

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Story produced by Sara Kugel.

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