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Center for
Civil War Photography


National Stereoscopic Association

LA 3D Club

LA 3-D Club

History of early 3D Photography

For many of us growing up the first 3D images we saw were through a View Master.  I remember spending many hours playing with the reels and pressing the button to get to the next image.  The first time I saw a Stereoscope I put in the card and pointed it at the light.  It took a minute to realize that for the Stereoscope to work I needed the light behind me, not in front!

I was amazed with the images and could not believe that 3D photography had been around so long.  When I started looking, I found it hard to find a time when images were not available in 3D.  I found stereograph's from the 1880's then 1870's, 1860's, 1850's.  I could not believe that quality 3D images was around so close to the invention of  photography in 1838/1839.  The truth  was even more bizarre!

Just prior to the invention of Photography, Charles Wheatstone of England demonstrated Wheatstone_Charles_drawing_1868how the brain created 3D view from a composite of the images seen by the left and right eye.  These first stereographs were actually drawings and by looking through a special device you could see the 3D image.  He demonstrated this in 1838 literally just months before Daguerre perfected the technique for the daguerreotype photograph.

Almost immediately it was realized that if two cameras were placed approximately two and a half inches apart (approximate distance between your eyes) that instead of drawing 3D images one could simply photograph them.  At this point the problem lay not so much in the photograph, but in the viewer.  Wheatstone's viewer was complicated and required a series of prisms and lenses.  The skill to produce this and ultimately the cost, kept enjoyment of stereo images to a select group.

Charles Wheatstone

During the Crystal Palace exhibit held in 1851 in London, Queen Victoria became fascinated with the early stereoscopes.  This helped to increase popularity to the point that more than 500,000 images were sold in the next few years.  Still, the audience was largely the affluent upper class.  3D was not ready for the masses.

Over the next few years improvements were made in photography.  The images moved from daguerreotypes on glass, to the ability to reproduce multiple copies on paper (similar to today's process).  The original negative was still on a glass plate, but the ability to reproduce the images brought down the prices.

Oliver_Wendell_Holmes_Sr_1859But the viewer continued to be expensive.  Along came Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (father of the Supreme Court Justice), who  developed what came to be known as the "Holmes Viewer" around 1860.  Finally,  the viewer had caught up to the photographs.  Now it was possible to create an inexpensive 3D viewer that could display the images being produced.

Within months the Civil War started and photographers realized that they could make more profit with 3D images than they could with standard images.  While standard images remained very popular, a review of the images in the Library of Congress reveals that of the 7012 images from the Civil War, 2112 of them are Stereographs.  This is more than 30% of the entire collection.  When you exclude the 2650 portraits, stereographs makeup nearly 50% of all the collection.   Many of the most iconic images of the Civil War actually started out as 3D stereo images.  The photographer would sell not only the 3D version, but

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

by printing either the left or right side, could sell 2D versions as well.

To simplify the process, new cameras were developed with a single camera that had two lenses and could create one glass negative with both images.  This helped with alignment of the final image and improved printing.  Soon the demand for images and the availability of affordable viewers made 3D photography take off.  Many of these early images were hand colored and tinted during the war.  The early attempts are crude and quality varies, but the desire for color images was there from the beginning.

After the war the demand for the images continued.  While new stereo images were produced,  the public still wanted to see and collect the Civil War images.  Today, what is considered to be "original" Civil War Stereographs, were actually made as late as 1916, when most of the images were placed in storage.  This means some of these images were in production for as long as fifty years, to satisfy the constant demand.


The Wheatstone Viewer used prisms to produce the image


Drawing from Patent for “Holmes’ Viewer”


Stereo Camera Circa 1865

It was not until 1943, when many of the images were now more than 80 years old, that the Library of Congress began to acquire them. Over the next 20 years the Library collected more than 7500 photographs, drawing and sketches.  Since then the Library has taken steps to preserve the images, but not to repair or restore the damage that has occurred in the nearly 150 years since they were produced.

While the Library of Congress collection is vast, it is by no means complete.  The Library's collection does not include any of the negatives of the stereographs of Confederate commanders in the field (there are a few studio pictures taken just after the war) and just a few of confederate troops.  Sadly, many of the negatives may have just been lost.  Many stereographs that I have seen are not part of the collection.  Where did these images come from and what happened to those negatives may never be answered.  At the end of the war many of the glass plates where washed and reused - some simply used as window or greenhouse glass until the images faded and were lost. 

We are lucky to have the Stereograph images that have survived.  With restoration it is now possible to see clean, bright images not only in 3D, but as the people that lived in those times wanted to see them, in COLOR!

My history with Stereographs

As mentioned before, I grew up in the View Master era and thought that this was the inception of 3D photography.  During the late 1970's I saw my first Stereograph and viewer and had to have it.  I spent $55 to purchase a viewer and my first set of cards.  Since that time I have continued to collect cards and still have my first viewer and cards from 30 years ago.  When I see cards now I try to collect quality images, but secretly I always wanted to find the ones from the Civil War. 

The Civil War cards are probably the hardest to find.  While the originals may have been produced as late as the First World War (many of the cards clearly state on the back that they were produced more than 25 years after the Civil War), even these are scarce and expensive.  A single image of a generic subject can fetch several hundred dollars and the image is usually faded and showing its age.  Images with important figures, or ones with memorable images (such as the banners ones at the top of this page) can reach thousands.  In August of 2009 a stereo view card of Custer with a dog sold on eBay for more than $1800!  Other memorable images could fetch even higher prices.

History of this collection:

For several years I have been working on cleaning up black and white images and adding color.   Deciding that the ultimate challenge would be colorize images from the Civil War,  I started  Since our founding we obtained access to the complete digital archive in the Library of Congress.  These images were scanned directly from the original negatives and stored in a resolution of 100Mb for each half of the stereo images.  The final combined set of cleaned and colored images can exceed 1Gb in size!

The image condition varies.  Scratches, broken glass, missing pieces, etc. are very common.  For this reason many hours have been spent trying to first return the images to the quality that they were during the Civil War and adding color.  To restore the images, carefully removing scratches, nicks, scrapes and age spots, is done by reviewing every portion of the image at maximum resolution.  Then for larger damage, the use of similar images or the other half of the stereo pair was used.  For example, several of the images had numerous versions taken.  Photographs of Grant and Sherman were done two or three times and then a final pair was chosen for publication.  Using some of these additional photographs allowed the image to be restored to its original quality.  Other images had only the other half of the stereo pair as a source for repair.  Since the images are not the same, simply duplicating the entire image would result in a flat 2D effect.   However, it is possible to retain the 3D quality when repairing a chip or small piece that has been lost due to time.

After the images are restored, we then began the work of coloring them.  We relied both on experience working with black and white images as well as in depth research to get the proper color and shade that was appropriate to the period.  Even with that knowledge, some images cannot be restored.  The original image maybe to dark or to light to recreate color.   An image that is pure black and white will not colorize.  Shades of gray allow a color image to be produced.

Are the colors right?  Obviously, the color of a dress or the shade of paint on a building may never be known, but most of the images are soldiers in battle.  Using images available from museums and re-enactors, etc. enabled color for the uniforms, armaments, etc. to be matched closely.   Modern pictures of some of the battle areas show what the original color of the rocks, etc. should be.  With this research, we feel, as much as possible, this is what the color picture would have looked like if the technology had been available.