Ancestry.com’s Leafy Depiction of Photographing the Gettysburg Address

25 Oct

Have you seen the Ancestry.com commercial which “virtually recreates” the scene at the dedication of the Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery on November 19, 1863? It’s pretty cool. If you haven’t, CLICK HERE to watch it.

I’m sure a number of people who have seen this commercial have checked out Ancestry.com. As someone who has used that service, I can vouch for it as a powerful digital research tool for one’s family tree. With the 151st anniversary of the Gettysburg Address fast approaching, we undoubtedly will continue to see this commercial in numerous television and internet spots. As these kinds of advertisements go, Ancestry’s digital recreation of one of America’s most compelling historical events is visually stunning even though it is littered with many troubling historical inaccuracies. But why let history get in the way of making an aesthetically pleasing commercial designed to induce people to subscribe to a service?

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Having seen the commercial, you surely noticed a digitally enhanced Abraham Lincoln standing by a table on a single-level platform delivering his Gettysburg Address, surrounded on the rostrum by a sparse, numerically unimpressive group of dignitaries. The advert also depicts a large, low slung white tent, off to the side, facing the speakers’ platform. In the direction of that tent, standing on an elevated position above the ground-level spectators, is a photographer — the ancestral “star” of the commercial — who aims his tripod-mounted camera at Lincoln’s sun-illuminated side profile. The photographer’s view of his prize is completely unimpeded.

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Several seconds into the commercial, a gentle breeze whimsically blows an Ancestry.com “leaf” from the screen of a laptop held by a woman searching nearly 151 years into the past to a scene representing a portion of the battlefield where the Gettysburg Soldiers’ Cemetery was dedicated. Soon thereafter, the animated leaf loops its way towards Lincoln’s face and then away from the speakers’ platform, dragging the viewer’s perspective along with it over to the photographer and his camera positioned on top of an open wagon. The sight of the dancing leaf instantly reminded me of the dancing feather imagery used in the movie Forrest Gump — the greatest modern day depiction of a man seemingly unequipped for greatness, but who repeatedly does great deeds all the while crossing paths with the most famous people at the most historic events of his time. But I digress. Meanwhile, the Ancestry ad’s narrator melodically describes the leaf icon as a sort of metaphorical representation of a helping aid employed by Ancestry.com to guide its subscribers on a journey to their “past filled with stories that intrigue and inspire, and, in doing so, reveal the one unique, improbable, and completely remarkable path that led to YOU. [So] discover your story by searching for free now at Ancestry.com.” Soft, pleasing music accompanies the spot throughout, reminding me again of the final “feather” scene in Forrest Gump. It is just a brilliantly crafted and conceived ad!

During this narrated segment, as the viewer’s perspective pans to the right, the photographer’s head pops up from behind his camera just before he moves to the side and lifts the cap off its single lens in order to expose a presumably magnificent image of Lincoln giving his most famous oration.

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All the while, the focus upon the cameraman continues to tighten until superimposed graphics appear above his head revealing his identity and vital statistics. At the commercial’s conclusion, the photographer’s descendant is shown in the present day closing her laptop and swelling with pride after her search on Ancestry.com revealed that it was HER forefather who photographed Lincoln delivering the immortal Gettysburg Address seven score and eleven years ago. Wow! Imagine discovering it was one of your ancestor’s who did THAT!

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It was at that moment, during my first viewing of the ad in the midst of a commercial break from the PBS show “Finding Your Roots,” that I moved my face closer to the television screen and squinted in order to try to make out the photographer’s superimposed name. Not only was I was extremely excited to see a Civil War era photographer depicted as an ancestor in whom one should take GREAT, GREAT PRIDE, but I wondered to myself which known photographer’s name Ancestry would choose for the advert. Would they flash on the screen “Alexander Gardner,” the Washington, D.C.-based genius whose team of photographers created the only known pictures taken anywhere remotely close to the general vicinity depicted in the commercial? Or would Ancestry select Baltimore’s “David Bachrach,” the photographer whom William Frassanito believes most likely took the only known image of Lincoln on the Gettysburg speakers’ platform? Or how about “Anthony Berger” or “David Woodbury,” the two Mathew Brady photographers whose dedication ceremony images somehow have gone missing with the passage of time? Surely Ancestry wouldn’t hit us with a dark-horse local candidate like “Peter S. Weaver,” who took at least one and maybe two long-range images of the ceremony, or one of the Tyson brothers (not the fellows with the chicken business, but the brothers who had a photography studio in Gettysburg).

When my eyes finally came into focus on the photographer’s name and his vital statistics, it read:

FREDRIC MILLER (1829-1885), husband of Susan Hutton (1833-1889).

Wait a second. Fredric Miller? Who the heck is Fredric Miller and the genealogist in me wants to know how is it that he and his wife both died at the age of 56?

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If you have used Ancestry.com’s search engine in an effort to find this “Fredric Miller,” then you are aware that no one by that name is known to have photographed the dedication ceremony, let alone Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address. Moreover, no photos of Lincoln orating or even standing on the rostrum at Gettysburg are known to exist. The brevity of Honest Abe’s speech is credited for the failure of photographers then present to capture such an image. In fact, I am not aware of the existence of any prominent or obscure professional photographer named “Frederic Miller” during the entire Civil War. If Ancestry ever proves me wrong, I’ll be quick to dole out mea culpas. But until then, I think that Snopes.com should pronounce this guy a fake.

So what did I really think of this ad? On the one hand, I learned that a company in the business of helping people find accurate information about their past has elected to market itself by making up a fake name for a photographer, placing that fellow where no photographer is known to have situated his camera, and then depicting him taking a photographic image of Lincoln orating at Gettysburg despite the fact that no such image is known to exist. I can only surmise that the Ancestry Legal Department instructed its Marketing Department that it is wiser to depict a fictitious person engaged in a fictitious act of photographing Lincoln at a very famous historic event rather than risk being sued by the descendants of a real photographer who might claim that Ancestry is unfairly profiting from the use of their ancestor’s name and image. Perhaps visions of suits by image copyright holders also served as further motivation. When in doubt, fictionalize.

On the other hand, I’m more or less at ease with Ancestry’s aesthetically pleasing commercial despite their failure to depict the scene accurately and to identify one of the REAL PHOTOGRAPHERS at the Gettysburg dedication on November 19, 1863. Although it is hard for me to ignore blatant historical inaccuracies, I have to admit that the commercial wildly succeeded in calling attention to how we should celebrate and take pride in those cameramen (many of whom still are not properly credited 150+ years later) who played critical roles in capturing historic events on glass plate negative slides during America’s bloody Civil War. Anyone lucky enough to discover family connections to the people who toiled to create the photo-historical record of Gettysburg in November 1863 have every reason to be supremely proud of their ancestor.

— Craig Heberton, October 25, 2014

 

Note: The images herein are used under the doctrine of fair use for the purpose of commentary

 

 

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One Response to “Ancestry.com’s Leafy Depiction of Photographing the Gettysburg Address”

  1. C. Marquez February 21, 2015 at 2:02 am #

    Hello, The ad is still airing. Saw it tonight Feb. 20th for the first time. In a household of knowledgeable photographers with a love for view cameras and history buffs we all said whoa. We all laughed about the inaccuracies and that the commercial break was longer than the speech itself. We googled a bit a found your site with the screengrabs and insights. Thanks for the blog, I will read more of it.

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