Thursday, October 15, 2009

Biography--Lincoln Through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Shaped an Extraordinary Life

Bibliographic Data
Sandler, Martin W. Lincoln Through the Lens: How Photography Revealed and Shaped an Extraordinary Life. New York: Walker Pub. Co., 2008. ISBN 9780802796660.

Plot Summary
Martin W. Sandler takes a different approach from most Lincoln biographers. In this book he links photos and images of Licoln's life and times to current events, icluding the history of the art of photography. Through his concise text, Sandler shows us how Lincoln and the budding photography industry both profited and gained over the years of Lincoln's life, in a way tbat wouldn't have been possible if these two 'forces' hadn't come together at the same time in history. Not just a LIncoln biographiy, this book also serves as a basic ntroduction to the beginning of celebrity photogra0phy.

Critical Analysis

           “It was through the camera that the most remarkable events
           in Abraham Lincoln’s life were revealed, events that not
           only disclosed but shaped his life as well” (68).

Photos occur everywhere throughout this book, which is only appropriate considering that the book addresses how photography and Lincoln’s career developed so closely together, almost in a symbiotic relationship. Every page of this book until the end pages contains one or more photographs, paintings, or images. Sandler doesn’t restrict himself to photos of only Lincoln, though. We see a slave family, we are witnesses to the hanging of the Lincoln assassination conspirators, and we are even taken to the battlefield of Antietam to observe, through the haze of the cannons, the single bloodiest day to ever occur within the Continental United States.

Because photography was in its childhood stages, the photographs sometimes are not very clear, but others are of very high quality. For example, the only known photograph in existence of Lincoln at Gettysburg on the day of his famous speech is reproduced on pages 4 and 5. Sandler tells us told that a specific circled person within the photograph is Lincoln. The photograph is printed three times, once in its entirety, a close-up of one section, and then the close-up of a third section, which contains Lincoln’s image at Gettysburg. Although Pennsylvania Governor Curtis and his son are clear in the second reproduction, the circled image in the third section of the photograph looks more like Ulysses Grant than Lincoln to me. However, the librarian who, in 1952, found the plate this image was printed from was much more experienced at looking at old photographs than I am, since she worked in the Still Pictures Branch of the National Archives. Other than this one image, the photographs are all fairly clear.

Although this biography is not arranged in strict chronological order, some of the information builds on itself. However, this is not to the point where the book has to be read in sequential order. Most of the double page spreads are self-contained essays. A Table of Contents would have aided the book greatly; however, there is an index, list of places to visit, and lists of websites and books for more information.

Sandler’s choice of words in many passages is flawless; for example, “Union troops were trounced” (50), “a sad and weary Robert E. Lee left the courthouse, mounted his horse, and rode slowly away” (70), and “Eyes crazed with anger, Booth planned Lincoln’s assassination carefully and ingeniously” (78).

Sandler gives thorough photo credits and a list of sources in the back of the book. He specifically states, “The following sources have been particularly important in presenting key concepts in this book...” Further down the same page, he writes, “Here is a bibliography of the most significant sources I used in my research...” (95).

Although primarily about Lincoln, Sandler also gives us information about the first half of the 19th century, especially when he discusses Lincoln’s visit to New Orleans as a young man. The sights and sounds of 19th century New Orleans come alive in the text:

           “Lincoln was thrilled by the prospect of visiting his first
           genuine city. Although he was fascinated with the sight of
           the towering sailing vessels that jammed New Orleans Harbor
           and with the crowds of people from around the world that
           filled the city’s streets, he was shocked at something else
           he witnessed.

           More than 200 slave dealers conducted their business in New
           Orleans, and Lincoln was horrified at the sight of gangs of
           men, women, and children shackled in chains, being prodded
           along to the auction blocks to be sold off like horses or
           cattle” (16).

Many of us remember being forced to memorize Lincoln’s Gettysburg address in junior high or middle school. Placed in the context of Lincoln’s life and presidency, though, Sandler’s lead-up to it takes the words of what might have been just another dreary history lesson, and transforms them into a vibrant passage.

           “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on
           this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and
           dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

           Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether
           that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated,
           can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that
           war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a
           final resting place for those who here gave their lives
           that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and
           proper that we should do this.

           But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not
           consecrate—we can not hallow this ground. The brave men,
           living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it,
           far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will
           little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can
           never forget what they did here. It is for us the living,
           rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which
           they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is
           rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task
           remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take
           increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the
           last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve
           that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation,
           under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that
           government: of the people, by the people, for the people,
           shall not perish from the earth.”

Martin W. Sandler has taught American history at the university level. He is an award-winning television writer and producer. He has written more than 60 other books. One of his other books, The Story of American Photography, was named a Boston Globe-Horn Book Award Honor Book. He has also written an award-winning history series for young readers for the Library of Congress.

Awards and Honors
  • Cybils, 2008 Finalist ; Non-Fiction Middle Grade/Young Adult Book United States.
  • Booklist Book Review Stars , Sep. 15, 2008; United States.
  • Choices, 2009; Cooperative Children's Book Center; United States.
  • School Library Journal Book Review Stars, October 2008; Cahners; United States.
Review Excerpts
Ilene Cooper (Booklist, Sep. 15, 2008 (Vol. 105, No. 2))
"This extraordinary book is a tribute to the way contemporary and future generations came to view Lincoln....Part biography, part history of the Civil War, the book touches on many interesting topics....Although it’s the pictures that provide the “wow factor,” Sandler’s perceptive words have their own elegance. Well sourced and offering numerous ways to learn more (although, surprisingly, the fine Lincoln museum in Springfield is not cited), this will be an excellent tool for history classes; and browsers, too, will be caught up in Lincoln’s story."

CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center Choices 2009)
"Martin W. Sandler documents Lincoln’s rise to power through a chronological arrangement of photographs, accompanied by the fascinating stories behind each one, along with what they tell the modern reader about Abraham Lincoln."

Horn Book (The Horn Book Guide, Spring 2009
"This well-researched photo-essay provides an engaging account of its subject and the historic events that shaped our nation. Using Lincoln's own words, anecdotes, and more than one hundred photographs, this biography vividly portrays the integrity, wit, and compassion of the president who ended slavery and reunited the country."

Book Hook
If you enjoyed the photodocumentary approach taken in Sandler's book, don't miss Russell Freedman's Lincoln: A Photobiography. (Sandpiper, 1989) which won a Newberry Medal in 1988, or The Civil War by Geoffrey C. Ward, Kenneth Burns, and Richard Burns (Vintage; Mti edition, 1994).

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