Smithsonian: Behind The Scenes

3-D 'Motion Pictures' From The Civil War

With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's beginning upon us, a plethora of photographs and exhibitions will bring out familiar images and reveal some new ones. As a photo historian, I'm interested in looking at the intersection of the personal photographic experience and a significant national event.

(Courtesy of National Museum of American History)

Perhaps one of the most challenging kinds of images to show, especially via the Web, are stereoviews, also known as stereographs. A stereoview is two photographs of the same scene taken from two slightly different perspectives, mounted side by side on a card; the photos combine and appear three-dimensional when seen through a viewing device called a stereoscope.

Civil War stereoscopic photos
Smitshonian Institution

Here are some animated stereoviews from the Smithsonian's Photographic History Collection to show the images in 3-D by flickering the right and left sides of the views. Your eyes and brain will collaborate to give the sense of depth. The captions are transcribed directly from the back of the stereoview card.

Consumers made choices about the images they brought into their homes. These stereoviews, and others like them, would probably have been experienced in a multigenerational group of family and friends. Political views, social concerns and memories would have been discussed and shared, providing dialogue and reinforcing beliefs — perhaps not so different from watching the evening news today.

"View on the Battery, Charleston, S.C. Remains of the large Blakely gun, burst by the rebels before the evacuation." (Courtesy of National Museum of American History)

"The famous Relay House, on the Baltimore & Ohio R. R." (Courtesy of National Museum of American History)

"Monitor Cononicus, on the James River, taking in Coal." (Courtesy of National Museum of American History)

"Headquarters Gen'l Porter, Farnhold's House and York River in the distance." (Courtesy of National Museum of American History)

"Interior view of Fort Sumter, Charleston, S.C. ... The gun, partially covered by debris, is the 10-inch Columbiad, directed towards the city of Charleston, but never used." (Courtesy of National Museum of American History)

"General W. T. Sherman (Old Tecumseh.) This view was made in the line of works before Atlanta." (Courtesy of National Museum of American History)

"This beautiful view is a scene looking up the Tennessee River. The charming camp in the foreground is in Monument Garden, near the Indian Mound; the group of Soldiers seem as though they might be enjoying themselves." (Courtesy of National Museum of American History)

"This was a very strong Rebel fort; it was captured by Sherman's boys who made a splendid assault and charge, and carried it by storm. This view is on the river side of the fort, and shows a signal man on the parapet, and a steamer approaching." (Courtesy of National Museum of American History)

Since photography's invention, there have been multiple experiments and successes in bringing "reality" and photography together. Some may think that animating these images is a visual gimmick, but it falls in line with the continuous efforts to share collections across the Web.

The Photographic History Collection holds more than 35,000 stereoviews of various themes by more than 400 makers, photographers and distributors. Other views from Smithsonian collections can be seen at collections.si.edu.

Shannon Thomas Perich is an associate curator of the Photographic History Collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Her regular contributions to The Picture Show are pulled from the Smithsonian's archives.

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