About half way through the 2010 documentary Truth in Numbers? Everything According to Wikipedia, historian Howard Zinn says “All history is a matter of selecting out of an infinite number of facts, and the selection itself is inevitably biased.” For example, in the traditional accounts of Christopher Columbus, the Progressive Era and the Civil War, historians routinely fail to mention, respectively, Columbus’ slaughter of native populations; the widespread lynching throughout America in the early 20th Century; and the massive amount of Indian land grabbing during the 1860s. All these examples, Zinn argues, show how in historical writing omission can be just as subversive as factual inaccuracies. Zinn believes this inherent bias can lead to a distortion of “the truth,” especially when amateur historians write on Wikipedia. As CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer adds “What’s worse, telling a bold-face lie, or just part of the truth?”
As its title indicates, Truth in Numbers? is concerned with how Wikipedia explores the “truth.”Interviewing dozens of Wikipedians as well as authors, journalists and critics such as Zinn, Schieffer, former CIA Director James Woolsey, Lawrence Lessig (who sadly only appears briefly at the beginning), and Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, the film focuses on the rise of Wikipedia in modern internet culture, and how it is shaping human knowledge.
Unfortunately, directors Scott Glosserman and Nic Hill mirror Wikipedia’s “Npov” policy, as the film itself doesn’t take sides. (To get even more meta, the “reception” section of the film’s Wikipedia page shows that almost all sides have a different interpretation of the film’s message.) Furthermore, there is very little narration, and in fact not much of an overarching narrative to the film. Instead, Glosserman and Hill jump from one interview to another, almost like the “Wikipedia wormhole” I mentioned two weeks ago.
The majority of the interviews revolve around how Wikipedia’s anonymity affects its accuracy and credibility. The first criticism is that it’s too easy to create inaccurate information. (As Stephen Colbert jokes in an interview with Wales, Wikipedia is the “First place I go when I want some knowledge, or want to create some.”) Wales’s brushes these aside, since unlike traditional encyclopedias, Wikipedia can easily change any error.
A lot of the critics also complain that the site lacks credibility since the editors are anonymous; one points out that traditionally people who wrote anonymously wrote things like ransom letters, poison pen letters and graffiti. This line of thought is pretty ridiculous, and in fact the next interviewee immediately points out that much of the early political writing in this country was done anonymously (such as the Federalist Papers). Regardless, Wales also brushes this aside. He thinks that by editing under established pseudonyms, Wikipedians are practicing “pseudonymity” not anonymity, and take pride in their pseudonym just like they would their real name.
The last major attack on Wikipedia’s credibility I think is the most valid: that its current system scorns “experts.” Wales states that his goal is for Wikipedia to be a meritocracy. But for it to be a true meritocracy, wouldn’t professors and experts rise to the top? Instead, as interviewee after interviewee lament, Wikipedians often look down on elitism, and thus there are few so-called experts on the site. Writer Simon Winchester concedes that having just experts is not ideal, since “experts” often include old white men, and that is a problem. (Of note, the actual Wikipedians interviewed are extremely diverse, whereas all but one of the “critics” are men, with most old and white.) Still, as Zinn notes, having some experts would be helpful, since everyone carries biases. So experts are needed to provide the right context.
Overall, I do think some of the interviewee complaints are valid. To avoid the issue of anonymously editing without repercussions, requiring everyone to register makes sense. And possibly it would be helpful to have experts at the top of the food chain to review articles, as Winchester says. Perhaps the best analogy of Wikipedia is one of the last comments. The head of the Biblioteche Alexandria in Egypt says that prior to the emergence of Wikipedia and the internet as a whole, the global fountain of knowledge was a very slow drip, and that most people in the would couldn’t “drink” from it. Now with Wikipedia providing free and open access to everyone in the world, it’s like opening a fire hose. However, you still can’t drink from that either. So the goal should be finding the perfect middle.
(I have a lot more to say about this documentary, especially about Wales. But it’s not as germane to digital scholarship, so I”ll write a separate post.)
(3/25/14 UPDATE: here’s a second blog post on Truth in Numbers, focusing on Wales.)
Wikipedia is great since it has millions of articles just a finger click away. On the other hand, one finger click leads to another, which leads to another which leads to another, and next thing you know hours of your life are gone. The brilliant webcomic XKCD perfectly encapsulated this:
But in all seriousness, I do love Wikipedia and use it daily, if not hourly. So I was really frustrated on January 18, 2012 when Wikipedia held a “blackout” in protest against SOPA. For 24 hours, users couldn’t access English-language Wikipedia articles. Despite knowing about this blackout, I still tried accessing Wikipedia links dozens of times throughout the day just by habit. It was a reminder of how how ever-present the site is, and how much I rely on it to learn about the world.
Roy Rosenzweig analyzes the historical writing on Wikipedia in his 2006 essay “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past.” The article illuminates Wikipedia’s own history and its policies, though as expected from an eight-year old article, some of it could use updating. For example, since Rosenzweig wrote the article: Wikipedia has jumped from the 18th Alexa-ranked website, to sixth (#1 for non social media or search engine sites); 3 million articles overall, with 1 million in English, has exploded to 30 million and 4.5 million; and Wikipedia employees have grown from two to 200. Specific articles have changed too. Back then Woodrow Wilson‘s entry (3,200 words) was smaller than Isaac Asimov’s (3,500); now the former has 13,000 words and the latter 10,000.
Still, Rosenzweig’s main focus is on the historical writing of Wikipedia. He writes that thanks to Wikipedia’s neutrality policy as well as use of “encyclopedia style” there is no real interpretation on the site. I agree with this assessment, but unlike Rosenzweig, I don’t think this diminishes Wikipedia. The point of the site is to provide information, not expound historical arguments that can be found in historical journals or scholarly monographs. That’s why I agree with him that historians should “Spend more time teaching about the limitations of all information sources, including Wikipedia, and emphasizing the skills of critical analysis of primary and secondary sources.”
I also very much agree with his question “Shouldn’t professional historians join in the massive democratization of access to knowledge reflected by Wikipedia and the Web in general?” His ideas like historians taking one day a year to edit articles of their expertise, or creating an open-sourced collaborative textbook based on Wikipedia (or at least similar to Wikipedia) would help develop historical consciousness and knowledge. After all, as Rosenzweig states Wikipedia’s “extraordinary freedom and cooperation make Wikipedia the most important application of the principles of the free and open-source software movement to the world of cultural, rather than software, production.”
Considering my addiction to clicking on Wikipedia links, I couldn’t agree more.
(I plan to review a documentary about Wikipedia later this month. Check for that blog post in about two weeks.)
Tonight’s the Academy Awards, an I’ll definitely be watching. My parents always host an Oscars Party, and growing up I’d try to stay up as late as possible to watch as much of the broadcast as I could. Unfortunately that meant I usually missed the Best Picture award, since inevitably I had to go to bed first. Of course, I eventually got old enough to stay up that late, and to this day I remain a big fan of the Oscars.
So I naturally was interested when I saw this BuzzFeed article ranking all 85 Best Picture winners. Some of the rankings are not surprising: Crash is 83; the Godfather and Casablanca are top three. Some of them are rather surprising: Forrest Gump is 62; All About Eve is ranked No. 1. Either way, like most ranking lists on the internet, there were strong opinions. (Sample comment: “To the author: You are either insane or extremely brave. Probably both”)
Well here’s more noise. Below you’ll find my top Best Pictures list. Two caveats about this list. First, it’s unclear if the BuzzFeed author, Kate Arthur, has seen all 85 movies herself, but I’m only going to rank the ones I’ve seen. Unfortunately, this is only 37 out of the 85 films, and the majority of those are from the last 35 years. (Probably the four most high-profile films I haven’t seen are American Beauty, Schindler’s List, Annie Hall and Gone with the Wind. I also haven’t seen All About Eve, so I can’t judge if that should be No. 1.) Second, this ranking does not reflect what I think the “best” Best Picture films are. It’s instead an inherently subjective list based on how much I enjoyed the film. So yes, I realize Amadeus and Gladiator are not two of the top three movies of all-time. But they definitely are two of my favorite movies.
See the list after the jump, including Arthur’s ranking, my ranking and some comments.
The Internet Archive is pretty awesome. But the Google Ngrams tool, which allows anyone to search millions of books from 1800 to 2008, is pretty neat too. This tool is part of a new field called “culturomics” which is the study of historical trends by quantitatively analyzing words from a very large digital data set, like Google Books. (Ironically, if you do an Ngram search for culturomics you get an error message since it hasn’t entered the corpus of digitized books yet.) Culturomics has led to some cool discoveries, especially related to the development of the modern English lexicon. Here’s how it works, in graphic form:
But as Patricia Cohen wrote in her New York Times article when the Ngram too was first released, this groundbreaking historical research tool was not without its initial detractors. There are two main complaints from traditional historians: 1) only academics from the sciences, and not the humanities, were part of the initial research and study; 2) this tool doesn’t allow for close readings or interpretation (as Elena Razlogova describes it “today builders of digital tools and archives herald a non-interpretive, ‘post-theoretical age'”).
I think those complaints are missing the point. This tool, like so many other digital resources, is not about replacing traditional historical approaches, but is about giving historians and other “humanists” supplementary tools that are only now possible thanks to the power of the internet. As one of the creators of the Ngram project said “I don’t want humanists to accept any specific claims — we’re just throwing a lot of interesting pieces on the table.” So unlike quantitative history, which has more or less faded out as a historical method, I believe this tool is here to stay.
(Up next: creating an actual chart using Ngram!)
I’ve written about the Internet Archive a few times on this blog; it’s the best thing I’ve discovered in my recent exploration of digital historical resources. I’ve mostly used its Wayback Machine to look at some of the billions of pages of the internet it has saved, but it also preserves books, films, music and a lot more.
Included in “more” is the Television News Archive. This archive allows users to search closed captioning of news broadcasts, streaming the results in 30 second clips. Originally created in September 2012 to track television news coverage of the Presidential Election from two local stations (one in San Francisco, one in D.C.), the project has continued past its original scope. Recent topics include Jason Collins, Victor Yanukovych, and Whatsapp, and the original networks have now expanded to include Comedy Central, BBC America and Univision (though only news programs of those networks are covered.) The TNA has archived over 542,000 news broadcasts.
Like many efforts of the Internet Archive, the TNA theoretically is in a gray area of copyright law. Like the webpages the Wayback Machine preserves, the broadcasts in the TNA are not copyrighted by the Internet Archive. However, it is clear that the TNA’s use of these copyrighted broadcasts is fair use.
First, let’s assess the TNA according to the four factors of fair use:
- Purpose of Use: TNA’s original purpose was “to help engaged citizens better understand the issues and candidates in the 2012 U.S. elections.” Though that purpose has expanded past elections, the central tenet of furthering American civic engagement and education still exists.
- Nature of Copyrighted Work: The original material, though copyrighted itself, is heavily reliant on Fair Use since the images used are not owned by the broadcast. (For example, in the Jason Collins mentions linked above, the clip of Collins entering the game is not copyrighted by the local news stations.) The original material is (mostly) educational.
- Extent of use: With only 30 second clips of the news segments available, the archive only shows a very limited extent of the copyrighted material.
- Financial implications: There is no direct economic benefit for the Television News Archive (or IA in general) since it is a free service. Meanwhile, past news broadcasts are not “sold” to the public like say old episodes of sitcoms are.
However, the courts currently place less emphasis on the four factors than on the “transformativeness” of the Fair Use claim. On this account, the TNA passes as well. By allowing the public to compare broadcasts from around the country side-by-side, the TNA adds an extra layer of meaning to these copyrighted informational programs. If you don’t believe me, then listed to former FCC Chairman Newton Minow — who called television a vast wasteland in 1961. On the archive’s statements of support page, he says “The Internet Archive’s TV news research service builds upon broadcasters’ public interest obligations. This new service offers citizens exceptional opportunities to assess political campaigns and issues, and to hold powerful public institutions accountable.” As my emphasis shows, Minow’s support directly explains the transformativeness of the TNA.
Just another reason the Internet Archive is so critical.
Last night in my class on Presidential Elections, my professor called William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896 the most important political speech in American history. His argument was that it forcefully argued for the U.S. to adopt bimetallism, led to the rise of Bryan as a political figure and Populism as a central plank of the Democratic Party’s platform, and started the ideological shift of the Democratic Party towards a more activist approach (which culminated in FDR’s Presidency). That said, Bryan probably was already in place to secure the nomination, he lost the election to McKinley anyway (plus 1900 an 1908), the U.S. eventually adopted the Gold Standard, and the Populist movement wouldn’t be a major political player until 28 years later.
The comment was said kind of off-hand, so I don’t think the professor necessarily believes it to be THE MOST IMPORTANT SPEECH ever given by an American political figure in the history of the country (for this reason I won’t specifically name who said it.) Rather, the argument probably was that it’s one of the most significant speeches in U.S. political history, though arguably the most important one in late 19th century America (the topic for today’s lecture).
That said, I thought it would be a fun little exercise to list the speeches that I personally think are more important. To limit myself to comparable speeches, there are two rules: it must be given by a President or Presidential candidate like Bryan (for example nothing by delegates to the Constitutional Convention, John C. Calhoun or Martin Luther King) and it must be an actual speech, not a written address (for example George Washington’s farewell or Jackson’s Bank Rechartering Veto Message.) I’ll provide some links, but I didn’t consult any major lists or articles. Instead, off the top of my head, here are five speeches I consider more important than Bryan’s:
- Washington’s first inaugural address, 1789: like many aspects of Washington’s presidency, this was precedent setting, establishing the practice of an incoming president setting forth his agenda with an inaugural speech. Its themes were echoed in Washington’s farewell, which I’ve disallowed from this list.
4. JFK inaugural address, 1961: The first Presidential inauguration broadcast in color on television, this short 14-minute speech famously implored Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Though Kennedy’s presidency would last less than three years, starting with this speech it set the tone for the rest of the tumultuous decade of the 1960s.
- Ronald Reagan “Tear down this wall,” 1987: I don’t support all of Reagan’s policies, but it’s hard to argue he did not play a role in the end of the Cold War. Although Reagan was not President when the Berlin Wall did come down in November of 1989, this speech set the stage for the Communist leadership to tear down this lasting symbol of the iron curtain.
Franklin Roosevelt “Day that will live in infamy,” 1941: I easily could have put FDR’s first inaugural here, with its statement that “the only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” But that would be too many inaugural speeches. Plus, I think the Infamy Speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan, sending the U.S. into World War II, had more impact on American History. It inspired Americans and eventually led to a complete mobilization of the home front, which finally led us completely out of the Great Depression. Lastly, the the ensuing declaration of war (along with the separate declarations against the other axis powers) was the most recent, and perhaps last ever, time the U.S. officially has declared war.
Tie: Abraham Lincoln Second Inaugural and Gettysburg Address: OK I’m cheating here by listing two Lincoln speeches. But as a historian interested in Lincoln, it’s hard to limit myself to just one speech of his! Heck I probably could do a top five just of Lincoln speeches in addition to these two (first inaugural, house divided, Cooper Union, The Sheep and the Wolf parable, last public address). But these two speeches, both of which are enshrined in the Lincoln Memorial, really resonate with me. The former, with its biblical references and deep anguish over the pain of slavery really show the toll the war took on Lincoln, as well as provide insight into his spiritual beliefs. And the latter, established a new purpose for the United States (aka a new birth of freedom) and managed to summarize the most pivotal event in Amercain history in just ten simple but effective sentences. Truly an inspiration to us all.
Am I missing your favorite speech? Or do you think I overrate any of these? And what are your thoughts on the Cross of Gold?
When I’m doing work, I like listening to classical music. One of my first exposures to it was the Disney movie Fantasia. Like many early Disney movies, it was quite revolutionary for its time, mixing animated scenes with famous classical scores. Sometimes I like watching clips from the movie as a study break, and the other day I wanted to watch the clip scored to “Night on Bald Mountain.” Here’s what the first video result on YouTube looked like:
Oh well. Maybe I can view the clip of unicorns dancing to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony:
However, I did come across this masterpiece:
Yes, this is the “Candlelight mix” of Cascada’s “Everytime We Touch” set to the animation from Fantasia.
It’s understandable Disney wants to protect its copyrights and clearly fought to do so with YouTube. So why didn’t they successfully take down the video “Emimi225″ created? After all, the video includes previously copyrighted music and animation. Part of the reason for this is fair use. Emimi225 was able to freely remix previously created cultural icons to create their own cultural output because this country inherently has a free culture.
Lawrence Lessig would be happy.
Ten years ago Lessig, a legal scholar currently at Harvard, argued in his book Free Culture that the ability of the Emimi225s of the world to create works such as the mashup clip had recently become severely limited due to a strengthening of copyright law — in favor of major media companies that hold these copyrights, not creators like Emimi225. This change, Lessig wrote, flew in the face of our nation’s strong history of free culture. “The current reach of copyright was never contemplated, much less chosen, by the legislators who enacted copyright law.” (page 141). Instead of protecting the creativity of the “Emimi225s” of the country, the law has instead increasingly benefited big corporations (page 8). To combat this, Lessig pleads that “the Internet should at least force us to rethink the conditions under which the law of copyright automatically applies” (page 140). Though some of Lessig’s argument is now outdated, he still paints a fairly accurate (as well as bleak) picture.
According to Lessig, “free culture” has always been a central aspect of American society. Article I Section 8 of the Constitution enumerates the powers of Congress, including the power to “secur[e] for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” specifically in order “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” However, as Lessig writes, over the course of the second half of the 20th century, copyright law became significantly more restrictive, as “limited Times” have been extended to upwards of 100 years, “Authors and Inventors” have became simply “creators” and “Writings and Discoveries” have became any kind of created material, including music, architecture and software.
Lessig argued against this erosion of free culture in the Supreme Court case, Eldred vs. Ashcroft, 537 US 186 (2003). That case challenged the constitutionality of the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which effectively froze copyrighted works entering the public domain by extending their copyrights another 20 years to the standard of life of the author plus 70 years. Lessig’s main argument was that this violated the “Progress” clause of Article I Section 8 by effectively circumventing the “limited Times” requirement. Unfortunately, the court upheld the law by a vote of 7-2, and Lessig blames the result on his mistake of not focusing on the Act’s potential to stifle creativity. Lessig believed that instead of fear mongering, he should have tried to persuade the justices that the Sonny Bono Act was unconstitutional on logical, not emotional grounds (see pages 228-248).
Lessig believes blindly renewing copyrights will stifle creativity. He argues that we’re all “pirates” who “steal” from previously created culture, and always have been. For example, Walt Disney himself, whose copyright heirs block me from watching Fantasia, used the Brothers Grimm, and other “public domain” tales, as inspiration for his movies. “Stealing” the central themes and characters of these works (if not all the surprisingly gruesome plot details), Disney built an empire of impressive animated cartoons that far outstripped the competition. In fact, Lessig terms this type of cultural stealing/inspiration as “Walt Disney Creativity” or “a form of expression and genius that builds upon the culture around us and makes something different” (page 24). He also explores how the “norm of free culture has, until recently and except within totalitarian nations, been broadly exploited and [been] quite universal,” using as an example Japan’s strong tradition of unauthorized versions of popular graphic novels. The key difference in Japanese culture, as opposed to ours, is a lack of lawyers and corporations willing to use lawyers for litigation (pages 25, 27-8). Following Lessig’s logic, preventing “Walt Disney Creativity” — by extending copyright for so long — will halt “progress of science and useful arts.”
Lessig published his book ten years ago, so some things are out of date. For example, his discussion of fair use is under developed, especially considering there has been an increased recognition of fair use in the courts since 2004 (See Aufderheide, P. and Jaszi, P. Reclaiming Fair Use: How to Put Balance Back in Copyright). In addition, there is no discussion of Social Media. With its 2004 publication date, Free Culture is exactly as old as Facebook, and predates YouTube by one year, Twitter by two years and Instragram by six. With so much “pirating” and sharing on these social networks, one wonders how Lessig would view them. After all he views circa 2004 blogs as “arguably the most important form of unchoreographed public discourse that we have.” (An early example of blogs directly impacting society is their exposure of Trent Lott’s history of “misspeaking” about segregation (page 44).)
Still, as an early manifesto detailing free culture in the mid-2000s, Lessig’s Free Culture is relevant to appreciating Internet culture today. Brewster Kahle, who is a major internet activist, receives an entire chapter in Lessig’s book. Described as the “Andrew Carnegie of the Internet,” Kahle notes that restriction of creativity Lessig wished he had argued more clearly in the Eldred case is “No way to run a culture” (page 47). Lessig applauds Kahle’s Internet Archive project, stating that without IA’s attempt to archive and preserve the Internet, websites will function like the retroactively updated newspapers of 1984 that were constantly changed to reflect the current political climate, resulting in historical memory loss (pages 108-9).
In the end, Free Culture still holds up as an important concept worth defending, although 10 years after its publication it could use some updating. Lessig has since focused on calling a second Constitutional Convention. So he may not update Free Culture very soon. Perhaps some “pirate” could exercise his or her “free culture” right and adapt a 2014 version.
Ever since college graduation, I have been fortunate to work at a place I truly believe in – President Lincoln’s Cottage. From June through November of 1862, 1863, and 1864, Abraham Lincoln lived in a cottage on the grounds of the Soldiers’ Home in Washington D.C, commuting each day by horse to the White House. While at the Cottage in 1862, he developed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed slaves in Confederate territory and led the way to abolition of slavery in the United States. In addition, Lincoln met with members of his cabinet, generals of the Union army, and interacted with all sorts of visitors. For these historically significant reasons, President Bill Clinton named the site a National Monument in 2000. After an eight-year restoration by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Cottage opened for tours on President’s Day 2008. (If you haven’t gone yet I highly recommend it; as the only National Monument in the country that doesn’t receive regular government funding, we rely on earned income such as ticket sales and donations!)
The Cottage, in addition to serving as “the Cradle of the Emancipation Proclamation,” also influenced Lincoln’s presidency by virtue of its proximity to the first National Cemetery. Hauntingly, Lincoln witnessed hundreds of burials, as the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery lies just a few hundred yards from the Cottage’s front steps. The precursor to Arlington, this cemetery (today officially called “United States Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home National Cemetery”) was created in 1861 in the immediate aftermath of the First Battle of Bull Run. Lincoln often visited the cemetery, and one California visitor recalled him reciting lines from William Collins’ poem “How Sleep the Brave” as he walked among the graves. Clearly living so close to such a busy cemetery affected the President.
Working with my colleague Evan Phifer — who serves as one of our Historical Interpreters that lead tours of the Cottage — we hope to create a viable digital resource documenting this underrepresented part of Lincoln’s time at the Cottage and the Soldiers’ Home. We propose to create a visitor friendly and easily accessible database of the Civil War graves in the cemetery. As Evan can attest, we get a lot of questions about the cemetery from visitors, especially since we refer to it in our exhibits and programs, but do not regularly give tours of the cemetery (it falls under a different jurisdiction than the Cottage).
Unfortunately, not many online resources on the cemetery that currently exist can answer these visitors’ questions. The Park Service has a brief description of the history of the site, but completely fails to mention Lincoln; this is a glaring omission in the historical background. On the Cottage website, there is an old blog post of data detailing the burials, compiled by an Ohio history class in 2004. Evan and I will use this as a starting point, and certainly are grateful to Mr. LaRue’s class for compiling the raw data. However, both this post and the NPS description are not obviously accessible, lack robust interpretation, and/or do not promote interactivity. Our resource hopefully will include these elements.
We have a few platform options for our project. First, we could create a mini-site on http://www.lincolncottage.org, which uses the WordPress CMS. Second we could create a separate site using WordPress. And lastly, we might use Omeka to build it as a database/digital collection. Regardless of format, one of the key elements of our website will be a graph charting when the burials took place during the Civil War. This graph will be combined with a timeline of important Civil War, slavery and Lincoln family milestones. From this combined presentation, visitors will appreciate the context of the burials and how in turn they affected Lincoln’s leadership, ideas, and humanity.
In addition to demonstrating general trends over the course of the Civil War, we are especially interested in is the stories of the actual soldiers buried in the cemetery. The stories of these brave men are not told in any of the current research on the cemetery. By looking at records in the Library of Congress, National Archives and other veteran databases, we hope to create profiles of at least some of the soldiers who eternally rest in the Soldiers’ Home cemetery.
As for President Lincoln’s Cottage’s role, we will obviously keep our colleagues apprised of our work, especially Erin Mast, the Executive Director, and Callie Hawkins, Associate Director for Programs. In addition, George Wellman, a volunteer who also is a resident of the Soldiers’ Home, has an extensive personal knowledge of the cemetery. We certainly will use George to help in our research, as needed. Also, the Cottage’s Facebook and Twitter platforms can help us reach our intended audience.
It is our ultimate goal that this resource will help visitors to the Cottage, local D.C. residents, Americans interested in Civil War history and in fact any “historian,” professional or amateur, with internet access to better understand the profound impact the Soldiers’ Home National Cemetery had on President Abraham Lincoln.
In a three-part New York Times Opinionator series, film director Errol Morris tried to solve a conundrum: a pair of photos taken at the exact same location on the same afternoon during the Crimean War show cannon balls on a road as well as off to the side. Which photo was taken first and why did the photographer (Roger Fenton) change the shot for the second? Morris interviewed roughly a dozen people for the series, and even took a trip to the Crimea to place himself in the exact location photographed. Eventually he did figure it out (I’ll let you find out the answer yourself in part 3).
At one point, while talking to Gordon Brown, a former curator of the Getty Museum, Morris says “[Susan Sontag] mentions how one of the Fenton photographs was posed or staged. That we’re always disappointed when we learn that a photograph has been posed… according to Sontag, a fake photograph is a photograph that’s been posed.”
As someone interested in the Civil War, this certainly grabbed my attention. The Civil War was the first American war that was photographed widely, and many of these images are iconic to this day. Specifically, Matthew Brady and his associate Alexander Gardner took many photos of dead Civil War soldiers, most notably in the aftermaths of the Battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. In fact, “Gardner was determined to arrive at … battlefields as soon as possible to photograph the rotting corpses of America’s fallen men. He likely knew these shocking images would receive the most attention from the public.” (source)
But even just the bloated corpse of a dead Confederate (and these Northern photographers almost exclusively photographed dead Confederate soldiers, Brown tells Morris) wasn’t enough. As detailed by historian William A. Frassanito, Gardner’s men altered these photos, by hand coloring some of the black and white negatives with red ink to highlight the blood of the battle, and even more extreme, “posing” the photos by using fake props like guns and sometimes moving the dead soldiers.
Are these posed photos harmful to historians? To be sure, they do not tell exactly the “true” story of the subjects. Yet, that does not mean they are fake. That unfortunate sniper was killed in Gettysburg. Those cannonballs were fired in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. So they still demonstrate the history of their time and place. At the same time, historians using both old and new images, must be cognizant of the context of the images they use. And yes a healthy dose of skepticism might be necessary.
(This skepticism has some benefits. For example, humor site cracked.com has an ongoing series “Images you won’t believe aren’t Photoshopped.” Here is part 12, with one of the photos pasted below).