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Stereoscopic Images of the First World War

In February the article ‘In a Stetson and Three Dimensions: Picasso Comes to Life in 60 Year Old Pictures’ from The Guardian caught my eye as it described some stereoscopic images of Picasso, which are to be displayed at The Holburne Museum. Although we can’t claim to have 3-D images of Picasso here in the Library we do have some very special stereoscopic images.

In sharp contrast to the article about the images of Picasso from 1957 are the 100 stereoscopic cards depicting the brutality of the battles in World War 1. The stereograph cards document the war in a very powerful way. These graphic images show the destruction and chaos experienced by the soldiers in the front line. Stereo cards were cardboard cards containing side-by-side images of the same scene, which were then viewed through a set of lenses called a stereoscope and this created a three-dimensional effect. Few images of the battlefields were seen during the conflict due to access issues, restrictions and censorship policies, so these stereoscope cards would have had an important role to play in recording and portraying the realities of the battles. The fact that they were three-dimensional images seems to have given them added authenticity.

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The images raised debate among the staff here as to their authenticity.  Although they appear to be contemporary with the events taking place there also appears to be some discrepancy between the images, the dates that they were taken and the seasonal backdrop in the photographs. It also raises questions about how the photographs were taken during the fighting.  The Library does hold two further sets of these stereoscopic cards from this series, ‘The Japanese Russian War Through the Stereoscope’ and ‘Portugal Through the Stereoscope’.  All of these images have been used by the Library to explore reaction to conflict and our understanding of war and so despite the controversy of whether the images were real, staged or not they offer an extraordinary account of the conflict, the soldier’s experience and the changing medium of photography.


Conveniently, the Library also has a stereo viewer; this one appears to be a version of the Holmes Stereoscope, which was the most common type of stereoscope between 1881 – 1939.  Stereoscopes continued to be widespread in America until the 1930s, when there was a decline in production, probably due to the development of motion pictures.


It remains something of a mystery how the Library came to have these images or the stereoscope.   A search of the Library Archive proved rather fruitless in terms of locating their provenance or any other details pertaining to us acquiring them.

The Library’s current exhibition, Aftermath, commemorates the centenary of the start of the First World War and reflects upon the lives lost or shattered by war.  It includes letters written by Manchester University students during the First World War and the response to these moving testaments through newly created art works by Salford University Fine Arts students.

5 comments on “Stereoscopic Images of the First World War

  1. Linda Hadley

    where do you purchase such a device?

  2. Ian Recardo

    Hi I have about 75 of these and was just wondering what they may be worth?

  3. i have a set of 100 in a case that looks like 2 books together in the collection i have a soldier who is carring a comrade over his shoulder seen on many times on tv i know his name and i know that he was shot shortly after the photo was taken and killed and i still do not know how much they are worth took them to a free valuation and was told they was common but did not trust valuation said £40 said no way and walked hope this is of any help to you

  4. oh and i have a veiwer with it

  5. For about $12 (US) you can purchase a Hasbro MY3D Viewer from and “make it work” even if you don’t have the older version of an iPhone or iPod touch for which the viewer was originally made. * I use an old Samsung Galaxy SIII Android phone and have attached it to the viewer with a velcro fastener that works perfectly. I didn’t have to do anything to the stereoscopic photos, just have the phone automatically resize them and place the phone in the viewer. (See how here: )

    You’ve got to see how these images “pop” from the viewer! They take on a field of depth that adds the extra dimension to the photos. The left & right images in a stereogram are taken from a slightly different perspective. It is amazing what your mind can do to bring them to life. Words can give you an idea, but viewing will probably make you say, “Wow!”

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