Jim Sienkiewicz's Blog

Jim Sienkiewicz's thoughts on his own and others' photography

Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Historical Inaccuracy of Fredric Miller

Fredric Miller

Perhaps you have seen the commercials for “Ancestry.com”, a website designed to help people trace their family tree and unearth details about their ancestors and their accomplishments. One of the company’s most recent television spots features Abraham Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address in 1863 with the advertisement depicting the president delivering his speech in front of a large crowd. All the while the camera pans across the scene before fixing on the figure of a photographer who is documenting the event. The individual later identified as Fredric Miller is shown working underneath the dark cloth of his 8 x 10″ view camera and then repositioning to remove the lens cap in advance of taking a picture of Lincoln and the assembly. While there are in fact two known photographs of the address being delivered, there are a few problems with the accuracy of the fictitious photographer presented to us by Ancestry.

Here is a link to the spot: http://www.ispot.tv/share/7ryD

First off the available light is all wrong. In this mid-nineteenth century era of wet-plate collodion photography even midday exposures would have necessitated an average of 3 seconds for sharp pictures, with subjects needing to remain deathly still during the process. This fact would cause the non-posed people in the commercial to undoubtedly be rendered as blurred in any resulting photograph. The artificial reality of the weak backlighting from the November sunset is also something that would have increased the capture time dramatically and additionally led to no figure appearing crisp in the final picture. Look closely when Miller is under the dark cloth behind the camera. What is he doing? He certainly isn’t loading the film holder and if he is focusing the image on the ground glass then how come the lens cap is on? No matter what the circumstances, once the photographer emerges from his shadowed chamber he proceeds to free the lens of its felted encumbrance, but to what end? He hasn’t pulled the slide out of the holder and therefore there is no possibility of creating an image.

I know, I know. This might seem picayune and trivial, but if physicists like Neil Degrasse Tyson can deconstruct the scientific errors in films such as Gravity then I feel justified in doing the same in the case of Ancestry.com. Similar to Dr. Tyson who enjoyed the film he picked apart, I also liked the Ancestry commercial and its focus on a historical type of picture-making. The ad is shot wonderfully and the music is quite lovely as well.

For an idea of what one of the authentic photographs of Lincoln’s address looks like consult the picture at the end of this writing. This image was made at high noon with the fastest possible exposure time and still the figures appear extremely soft. Even the president who is visible two heads left of the gentleman with the top hat in the center of the frame is noticeably fuzzy in depiction.

unknown photographer, "Gettsyburg Address", 1863

unknown photographer, “Gettysburg Address”, 1863

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