Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Virtually in Washington

As the Obama inauguration approaches, I have been thinking about how those assembled in Washington D.C. will represent it to those not in attendance on popular sites for sharing photographs, texts, and videos. How will people's Twitter updates and Facebook walls and Flickr photostreams record the occasion for those who can not be present?

Looking back to the Lincoln inaugurations, a legacy to which Obama has often alluded, it is interesting to think about an image from the Library of Congress that I have taught about in the past, which shows a shorthand diary and the crowd in front of an unfinished Capitol dome watching the swearing in. I had never really thought of it as a social media document before, perhaps because of the cryptic nature of the personally inscribed shorthand, but it made me think about how stereoscopic images have circulated in the pre-digital era as a token of both presence and distance at significant public events.

In many ways, it's an image not about Lincoln but about the crowd. In several essays in the book Making Things Public, edited by Bruno Latour, the authors argue that photographs and paintings of such crowd scenes represent important political imaginaries, such as the notion of a general will in democratic government.

According to the Library of Congress's website, Internet crowd sourcing apparently played a critical role in identifying what the crowd was doing in rare steroscopic images of Lincoln's Second Inauguration.

Three stereoscopic negatives at the Library of Congress, heretofore misidentified as showing either the Grand Review of the Armies or the inauguration of President Grant, have been determined to actually show the crowd in front of the Capitol for the second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1865.

The discovery was made by Carol Johnson, curator of photography at the Library of Congress, after a patron alerted her to the fact that two stereo images that obviously showed the same scene had radically different identifications in the library’s online Civil War photographic negative collection. (

Before this discovery, there were two known images of the crowd gathered for the second inauguration taken from the same vicinity, one of those being a print at the library (LC-USZ62-7812). But the patron’s recent query to Johnson prompted her to re-examine the library’s identifications on three successive images near the end the group of stereoscopic negatives attributed to Alexander Gardner. These images are LC B811-1284, LC B815-1285 and LC B815-1286.

The library had 1284 identified as the Grand Review of the armies in May 1865, while 1285 and 1286 were said to show the inauguration of President U.S. Grant on March 4, 1869. However, there is a curious notation "Lincoln?" next to the entries for 1285 and 1286 in the library’s printed index log for the Civil War negatives.

That prompted Johnson to take a closer look at the three images, and she was able to link them to the second inauguration of Lincoln, on March 4, 1865, though the print in the library’s collection (LC USZ62-7812) that is identified as having been taken at Lincoln’s second inaugural.

The trees are leafless in all three images, so 1284 could not have been taken in May 1865, which was the time of the Grand Review. Images 1285 and 1286 do not show Grant's inauguration because other photos of that event show that a platform was constructed that extended out from the steps of the Capitol, and no such platform is in these images.

These three ‘new’ images of the crowd gathering for Lincoln's second inauguration mimic three frames from a movie, with 1284 and 1285 showing the troops as they march in and prepare to assemble, and 1286 showing everyone in place for the ceremony. The images do not show any part of the podium where the ceremony occurred.

As with the discovery of Lincoln himself in the two images from the Gettysburg Address ceremony, this discovery came about because someone took the trouble to take a careful, detailed look at the various images in question.

It's interesting that the library's patron who contributed to the discovery remains anonymous in this account of archival detective work. It is worth noting that there are also many stereoscopic photographs of Lincoln's funeral in Library of Congress collections online, even though his casket visited the states of many of his constituents before burial.

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Anonymous rachel lee said...

The image of the shorthand diary and Capitol stereoview is a fascinating one. How have you used it in classes before?

I also love how you've described the vexed status of the stereoview as a token of both absence and presence at public events. I don't know much about 19th century public speaking, but I imagine that with large crowds, it would have been difficult/impossible for all spectators to hear or even see the speaker - it's interesting to place the souvenir stereoview in the context of distant observers, in addition to those who never attended.

Thanks for the great posts - I've been reading your blog for quite some time!

7:51 AM  
Blogger Liz Losh said...

Your point about physical distance and the difficulty of seeing and hearing public speakers without today's technologies is a good one. Photographs taken the day of the Gettysburg Address really dramatize that problem.

I like teaching this particular photograph in the context of Lincoln's interesting revision history in which he pasted together fragments in both printed copy and his own handwriting into multiple drafts that incorporated the feedback of others. I want students to see Lincoln's speeches (and his letters and printed statements) as rhetorical and intertextual documents in which audiences really mattered. The Library of Congress has great digital collections to supplement this approach.

12:06 AM  
Blogger bob c said...

One benefit of photos, writing, painting, etc. that surfaces in discusions and/or disccoveries of this sort is their importance in thwarting mistakes or misjudgements that are perpetuated over the advance of time. It is truly fortunate to have, and have access to, archives. The digital conversion of the physical archives must be closely monitored to prevent the perverting of history as we move into a photo-shoped world. This also helps us trace the revisionist nature of we humans as we prepare for eternity. All in all, I'm glad so many eyes and minds are paying close atention.

7:47 PM  

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