Virtual Lincoln is both a marvel of computer Imagineering and an exercise in laborious exactitude. Over the last two years Oakley’s students have spent hundreds of hours perfecting Lincoln’s features circa November 1863, using Maya, a professional-grade animation and special-effects software program, and life casts Oakley has collected. Maya has also allowed the team to reconstruct the dedication sites of Evergreen and Soldiers’ National cemeteries as they looked at the time of Lincoln’s speech. Using the Evergreen gatehouse, a flagpole, stand-in models for the president and other notables, and four photos of the ceremony, the researchers have mapped out the various photographers’ positions and reproduced their images digitally. Their project is slated for completion by November 19, the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s speech.
For verisimilitude, Oakley’s team mined the archives of the Library of Congress, which in 2002 began making its trove of more than 7,000 Civil War-era negatives available online in high-resolution scans. There are only about six-score-and-ten known photos of Lincoln, and the ones taken during his greatest rhetorical triumph are so rare that they’re viewed like holy relics. He’s been identified in only three shots, and two of those IDs—announced to great fanfare in 2007—have been challenged.
So how did Oakley find Lincoln in this new photo?
When Oakley made his breakthrough, he was studying an enlargement of one of the images in dispute, a wide crowd shot of the ceremony. To create it, the professional photographer Alexander Gardner had employed a new technique called the stereograph. Two lenses created photos simultaneously, which yielded a 3-D image when seen through a kind of early View-Master. The choicest stereograph views were mass-marketed to the public.
Oakley wanted his animated 3-D re-creation of Gettysburg to feature a Sgt. Pepper-esque collage of the dignitaries who were seated with Lincoln on the platform. While trying to distinguish them in the right half of Gardner’s first stereo plate, he zoomed in and spotted, in a gray blur, the distinctive hawk-like profile of William H. Steward, Lincoln’s secretary of state. Oakley superimposed a well-known portrait of Seward over the face and toggled it up and down for comparison. “Everything lined up beautifully,” he recalls. “I knew from the one irrefutable photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg that Seward sat near him on the platform.” He figured the president must be in the vicinity.
Oakley downloaded the right side of a follow-up shot Gardner snapped from the same elevated spot, but the image was partly obscured by varnish flaking off the back of the 4- by 10-inch glass-plate negative. “Still, Seward hadn’t budged,” he says. “Though his head was turned slightly away from camera, he was in perfect profile.” To Seward’s left was the vague outline of a bearded figure in a stovepipe hat. Oakley leaned into the flat-screen monitor and murmured, “No way!” Zooming in tight, real tight, he stared, compared and sprang abruptly from his chair. After quickstepping around his studio in disbelief, he exulted, “That’s him!”
This isn’t the first time Lincoln has been identified from this work though:
Six years ago, a Civil War hobbyist named John Richter magnified the first Gardner stereograph enough to pick out, deep in the crowd, a man on horseback amid what appeared to be a military procession. Too tiny to see with the naked eye, the tall, slim rider sported a bushy beard and a top hat. His white-gloved left hand was raised to his forehead in apparent salute.
A close-up view of the right portion of Gardner’s follow-up photo revealed that the horseman had lowered his hand. In both shots, the man’s back was to the camera. Though neither offered a clear view of his face, the more Richter stared at the enhanced 3-D images on his screen, the more certain he was that he had something special.Richter is a director of the Center for Civil War Photography, a Web-based community of self-made experts. The core members compose a kind of murder board for anyone who thinks he has a new finding. The murder board is as hard to please as Madonna, for whom Oakley once created a backdrop video she used on tour. “These guys are approached all the time by people who literally see Jesus in a piece of toast,” Oakley says.
In Richter’s case, the center’s president, Bob Zeller, was dead certain that the figure was the president on his way to the stage. Zeller reasoned that Lincoln rode on horseback to the ceremony while wearing a top hat and white riding gloves. Gardner, he deduced, had taken rapid-fire photos of the faraway president. Or rapid-ish, considering that the shots may have been taken as much as ten minutes apart. “I’m absolutely convinced,” said Zeller, who later teamed up with Richter to write the book Lincoln in 3-D.
The discovery of possible Lincoln photos made national news. The claim was endorsed by no less an eminence than Harold Holzer, chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation.
There are arguments to both sides on whose Lincoln is right – you can read them and see whose camp you are in. You can even check out this interactive photo that showcases the two Lincolns and includes the arguments Oakley made against the first Lincoln.This is a good way to end:
History, he says, is like a vast puzzle for which most of the pieces will forever remain missing. “The historian’s job is to gather as many pieces as he can from as many sources as possible,” he says. “You come up with as logical an interpretation as you can, always realizing that new pieces will surface indefinitely.”
The gist is, we will never know whose definitively right, but we have to keep trying to figure it out.