Looking for Lincoln: UNCA professor in national spotlight for photographic discovery

UNC Asheville Professor Christopher Oakley and other scholars believe this rare photo captures Abraham Lincoln just before he delivered the Gettysburg Address. Photo courtesy of UNC Asheville.

The discovery of Abraham Lincoln in a rare photo at the scene of the Gettysburg Address has put local professor Christopher Oakley in the national spotlight as the 150th anniversary of the president’s famed oratory approaches.

Smithsonian magazine and USA TODAY both featured the UNC Asheville assistant professor of new media in articles published today, Sept. 24.

Smithsonian asserts that Oakley’s discovery “looks to be the most significant, if not the most provocative Lincoln photographic find of the last 60 years.” There is some controversy, however, because just six years ago, USA TODAY, on its front page, featured claims that a different man in the same photo is Lincoln. Oakley, an animation professional and self-described Lincoln nut, used a combination of historical records, other photos and portraits, high-tech new media tools and software, computer science and physics to convince many leading Civil War photography scholars that his man is Lincoln.

Oakley’s discovery grew out of the “Virtual Lincoln Project,” a multi-year effort he has led with UNC Asheville new media students to produce a lifelike 3-D re-creation of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg address. Efforts to correctly portray every detail of the cemetery setting and crowd of dignitaries led to close examination of the rare 1863 photos. Only six taken at the cemetery that day are known to exist.

It was his intimacy with Lincoln’s facial features that led Oakley to spot his bearded profile – quite fuzzy even when magnified many times – in one of the photos of the scene taken from a distance by Alexander Gardner. “I was looking at Seward [Lincoln’s Secretary of State] in the picture and I was not looking for Lincoln at all,” says 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, he looked back.”

Oakley adds: “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.”

Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863.

Video about the discovery embedded here via the UNC Asheville YouTube page.


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About Jake Frankel
Jake Frankel is an award-winning journalist who enjoys covering a wide range of topics, from politics and government to business, education and entertainment.

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