Follow the 16th President of the United States from his meteoric rise to his untimely demise in stunning stereoscope!
In 1839, when photography shouldered its way onto the world stage with a visual splendor unlike anything preceding it, Abraham Lincoln, at thirty, was nurturing a young political career as a third-term legislator in the Illinois House of Representatives while building his new law practice in Springfield, Illinois. Lincoln undoubtedly read newspaper reports about the invention of photography, replete with awe-inspiring descriptions penned by writers who struggled to find words to describe how a photograph looked to a people who had never seen such a thing.
"They are the most remarkable objects of curiosity and admiration, in the arts, that we ever beheld," wrote the editor of The Knickerbocker in December 1839 after seeing some of the first photographs (known as "daguerreotypes" for their inventor, Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre) on display in New York City. "Their exquisite perfection almost transcends the bounds of sober belief," inventor and painter Samuel F. B. Morse wrote.
The new invention was yet another shining achievement of civilization's progress-and another reason for antebellum Americans to marvel at how modern was the time in which they lived. The steam engine was revolutionizing transportation, and the locomotive, also known as the iron horse, was coursing through the countryside, chugging from one city to the next with remarkable speed and ease. In the 1830s, Morse himself had perfected his telegraph, which fired Morse code messages across vast distances like flashes of lightning. And a newfangled machine called a reaper harvested crops faster than an entire crew of workers, be they free men or slaves.
It was an age of philosophical enlightenment, too, and religious reaffirmation. Across the country, Americans rededicated themselves to the moral values of their Christian heritage, and so began to look at the inconvenient truth of slavery as a blemish on democracy's lofty ideals. By the 1830s, the issue of involuntary servitude had been a matter of debate in North America for at least eighty years. The tone of the discussion sharpened, however, when a Massachusetts social reformer, William Lloyd Garrison, began to frame slavery in a religious context, insisting that owning slaves was a sin against God. In 1831, Garrison established a weekly newspaper, The Liberator, devoted to the eradication of slavery, and, through it, helped launch the abolitionist movement. The South, whose agricultural economy was dependent on slave labor, held up Garrison as a criminal, and such rancor grew as years and then decades passed.
As the slavery pot simmered on the back burner, an enterprising young daguerreian artist named Nicholas H. Shepherd arrived in the western frontier in 1845 to open one of the first daguerreotype galleries in Springfield, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln and his young wife, Mary, were among his early customers, donning their finest clothes one day in 1846 before sitting in front of the camera, one after the other, each gazing into the lens with the same resolute countenance. In 1847, Lincoln was off to Washington to serve his first and only term in Congress, where his cause was not slavery-not yet, anyway-but opposition to the Mexican War.
By March 1861, when Abraham Lincoln became president, the country had split itself apart over slavery, while the photograph had evolved into new forms that expanded its role in American culture. The outmoded daguerreotype had been rendered obsolete-like the film camera today-by cheaper, easier-to-make photographs. The new craze became paper photographs pasted onto cards. The card photograph, or carte de visite, was created using a glass-plate negative, which was exposed and developed, and then placed on a piece of light-sensitive photographic paper and bathed in sunlight. The photo paper, after being developed, was trimmed and then pasted to a thin piece of card stock. A single negative could be used to print four images, or a hundred, or thousands when it came to images of Lincoln and other notables.
Even more sensational was the image known as a stereograph, or stereo view, which was a photograph viewed in 3-D through a stereoscope, or stereo viewer-another 1830s invention. "The first effect of looking at a good photograph through the stereoscope is a surprise such as no painting ever produced," the essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1859. "The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture. The scraggy branches of a tree in the foreground run out at us as if they would scratch our eyes out." Before the rise of the stereo view, photography was largely limited to the creation of photographic keepsakes of family and friends. With the advent of mass-marketed stereo views in the late 1850s, and with Holmes's invention of a simple, handheld stereoscope, photography now could also provide a photographic viewing experience. You could take a 3-D tour of the world while sitting in the parlor of your own home. Before movies and television, the stereo view was the closest thing to video that nineteenth-century Americans had. It was the first mass-marketed form of visual home entertainment, and the conflict provided boundless new
Thus, on the eve of the Civil War, Americans were presented with a new way to see war. The tall bluffs of the Hudson River Valley and the majestic Niagara Falls were enchanting, but people hungered for war news back then just as they devour news today, and the stereo view was a spectacular new visual way to bring actual scenes from the battlefields and the seats of power into American homes. With the rise of mass-marketed photographs, the Lincoln presidency would become the first presidency that was well documented by the camera, most often by the twin-lens camera of the stereo photographer. The Washington that Lincoln knew-the White House, the unfinished Capitol, the great public buildings, the forts that ringed the city-was documented with the depth-filled vividness that only a 3-D photograph can provide. Those same stereo cameras also recorded the war's battlefields, sometimes still fresh with the dead who fell there, the generals who won and lost those battles, and the men who did the fighting, creating a visual legacy that still captivates and moves us today, almost 150 years later.
Waist Deep in Cotton: Gullah Women of Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, prepare sea island cotton for the ginning mills of the Alex. Knox Plantation near Charleston in the ca. 1864 photograph by George N. Bernard. (Robin Stanford Collection).
Lone Grave: The lone grave of a Union soldier sits under a scraggly tree on the Antietam battlefield. (Library of Congress).
Top - With Firm Resolve: Lincoln Strikes a determined pose for the camera of government photographer Lewis Walker in 1863 (Courtesy of the Center for Civil War Photography)
Bob Zeller is a writer, journalist, and authority on Civil War photography who has published 10 books, including The Civil War in Depth. He is co-founder and president of the nonprofit Center for Civil War Photography. John J. Richter, a leading private collector of Civil War and Lincoln-related stereo photographs, is director of imaging and a member of the board of directors of the Center for Civil War Photography.
Harold Holzer is co-chairman of the United States Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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