Special Report

Will the Real Abraham Lincoln Please Stand Up?

A former Disney animator makes a provocative discovery by studying photos taken during the Gettysburg Address

(Alexander Gardner / Library Of Congress, Prints And Photographs Division; Alexander Gardner / Library Of Congress, Prints And Photographs Division / Courtesy Of Christopher Oakley)
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In Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blow-Up, a fashion photographer enlarges a series of pictures he’s taken and discovers he may have inadvertently witnessed a murder. His reconstruction of the event becomes an abstract study of subjectivity and perception. Does the camera ever lie? The question has profound implications for Christopher Oakley, who on March 5, during the bleak hours into the dawn, stumbled upon what looks to be the most significant, if not the most provocative, Abraham Lincoln photo find of the last 60 years. The former Disney animator savors the magic moment of discovery as if it were a Proustian madeleine or a 1943 Lincoln copper penny.

See Oakley's finding in this interactive photograph

Oakley, who teaches new media at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, was in his home studio working on a three-dimensional animation of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. Through the Virtual Lincoln Project, a collaboration with undergraduate researchers, Oakley hopes to shed more light on what happened during the historic dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, an event muddled by conflicting accounts, poor documentation, outright myths and a handful of confusing photographs.

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.

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!”


About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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