CSI Gettysburg

2009 March 30
by Leah Yale Potter

Errol Morris’s Zoom blog in yesterday’s New York Times offered the first installment of a gripping historical mystery stemming from a photograph found on the body of an unknown Union soldier in Gettysburg.  Morris is promising four more installments on the mystery this week.

Mark H. Dunkelman Collection

The ambrotype image of three young children was reproduced and circulated in hopes of determining the identity of the fallen soldier. A newspaper article describing the image (but not reprinting it) was also published, leaving us with an unusual artifact in which readers were asked to “decode” the image in order to identify tell-tale clues about the man and his presumed family.  The photograph was not used as an illustration but rather served as the main story.

As Morris points out:

Here, a photograph is used to provide a unique identification. Not in the way that might be imagined — someone looking at the ambrotype and saying, “That’s so-and-so . . . .” But by providing a piece of evidence, a context, that could be used to identify the family and the deceased husband and father.

In the traditional detective story, someone asks around: Do you know the identity (or the name) of the people in this photograph? Here, the identification is not made on the basis of recognizing the people from a photograph. But by first “translating” the photograph into words and sentences.

I’m hooked, and looking forward to reading the next installment.

Last 5 posts by Leah Yale Potter

No Comments

Comments are closed for this entry.