Photo discovery brings Smithsonian spotlight on Christopher Oakley and UNC Asheville
(September 24, 2013)
At 3 a.m. on a night last March, Christopher Oakley zoomed in close on a photo taken at the scene of the Gettysburg Address and found Abraham Lincoln where he wasn’t supposed to be. Other scholars had claimed to establish that a different man in the same photo was Lincoln, and that claim had landed them on the front page of USA Today only six years before.
Although a self-described Lincoln nut, Oakley is an animation professional – a UNC Asheville assistant professor of new media – not a trained historian. But he did what he calls a “historian’s happy dance” after spying Lincoln’s admittedly fuzzy profile. And in the months that followed, he employed his deep knowledge of Lincoln, and the high-tech tools of new media, computer science and physics to make a case that has convinced many of the leading scholars of Civil War photography.
With that effort, Oakley helped focus the national media spotlight on the scene at Gettysburg in 1863 as the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s famed oratory approaches. Is Oakley’s identification of Lincoln correct? In its October 2013 issue, Smithsonian magazine wrote that Oakley’s discovery “looks to be the most significant, if not the most provocative Lincoln photographic find of the last 60 years.”
Oakley’s Lincoln obsession began in kindergarten and has only grown stronger. In his youth, he attempted to make stop-motion and clay-animated short films depicting Lincoln. He became a sought-after animator, working for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Disney Studios and EA Games, all in Los Angeles. Joining the new media faculty at UNC Asheville in 2011, he finally found the opportunity to put his Lincoln passion back to work.
Oakley has engaged his students in the “Virtual Lincoln Project,” working to produce a lifelike virtual 3-D re-creation of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address. In the pursuit of historical accuracy, the students use photos, portraits, historical records and accounts, and life casts of Lincoln's face that Oakley has collected over the years. It was that same pursuit that kept Oakley awake in the wee hours, searching for known political figures in ultra-high resolution copies of the few known photos taken at the scene of Lincoln’s famous oratory.
“I was looking at Seward [Lincoln’s Secretary of State] in the picture and I was not looking for Lincoln at all,” said Oakley. “As an animator, I’m trained to look at and study movement. And in the first of Alexander Gardner’s photos, I could see Seward from the side and I knew who was around him. And in the second Gardner photo, someone new had entered. My eye drifted to him, and it hit me. I jumped up saying ‘No way – it can’t be!’ I’ve been staring at Lincoln’s face for decades, and that night at 3 a.m., he looked back.”
Just a few days after his photo discovery, Oakley took the students on the project team to the cemetery in Gettysburg. “It was a unique experience because we were making all these things [virtually] that we hadn’t seen with our own eyes besides the pictures online,” said Hagen Carringer, a senior new media student who has been working on the Virtual Lincoln for two years. “Then when you’re actually there and see how similar it is … when you’re standing right where Lincoln stood, allegedly, it all just comes together.”
“Allegedly” got a big laugh from the other Lincoln Project students talking with Carringer – working with Oakley, they feel they have corrected historians’ misrepresentations of certain details of the scene at Gettysburg. They have demonstrated that there were two speaker platforms at Gettysburg, not one, and that the seats were in curved, auditorium-style rows, not straight lines as previously depicted. And if Oakley is correct about the real Lincoln in the Gardner photo, the 6-foot-4 president at that point may well have been standing in front of the speaker platform, not yet seated.
They were able to make those discoveries because the team’s field trip to Gettysburg went far beyond offering a sense of place. Oakley and his team took precise measurements, some using lasers, and countless photos. Armed with their newly gathered data, as well as the photos taken by Gardner and other Civil War photographers, they used the university’s professional-grade 3-D animation software called Maya, and triangulated to find the actual locations for the Gettysburg speaker platform and the photographers.
While those photo historians featured in USA Today in 2007 are not backing down on their Lincoln photo claim, the leading Gettysburg photo scholar cited in Smithsonian, Bill Frassanito, has never believed their man was Lincoln. He gives Oakley an 80% likelihood of being correct about his Lincoln photo claim.
Students like Carringer are more certain about who has the real Lincoln, having seen Oakley’s evidence and based on their own intimacy with Honest Abe. “We’re constantly having to look at him from a 3-D perspective from all angles, and his profile is so distinct,” he said. “It is spot on.” Virtual Lincoln’s ‘personal groomers,’ juniors Brandon Garrett and Caroline Warren agree. “Caroline and I were working on the beard and you can see the shape of it,” said Garrett. “I feel like it’s definitely him.”
But Oakley wants more scientific corroboration. “The next piece is to go back to the cemetery and go old school – to take everything we’ve learned with our new media technology, our science, and go test it with props and sets, the camera equipment of the time and see if we can recreate that moment and those photos,” he said. “That will tell us if we’re right or wrong.”