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Book Review - The Civil War in Depth, Volume II - History in 3-D, by Bob Zeller

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 5

If you can't get your children to read history, try this. Let them wear 3-D glasses and look at the pictures in this book. They'll learn as much about the Civil War as if they had read The Life of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb - twice.

They will also learn that 3-D glasses aren't just a fad from 1950s monster movies. They were used a hundred years before that to view stereographic photographs. What's a stereograph?

Zeller tells us that stereographic photographs were popular from about the beginning of the Civil War to the mid-1920s. By using a camera with two lenses, each lens captured a slightly different aspect of the same subject. When the final image is viewed with 3-D glasses (a set comes with Zeller's books), the photo appears three-dimensional.

This is author Bob Zeller's second book featuring stereographic photography of the Civil War. The first was published three years ago and he did not intend to write a sequel. What prompted the second edition was his discovery of several private collectors with previously unknown stereographic Civil War views. In addition to Civil War scenes, many are photos of everyday people and events.

But photography was a newly developing business, and the photographers made what would sell. When the war began, photographers like Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner marketed 3-D war scenes to the civilian population. They became so popular that almost every photo of the Civil War era originally was made as a 3-D stereographic image. These include Zeller's newly found photos of Brady's 3-D scenes of Antietam and other battle sites; a previously unknown photo collection of African American soldiers; and, stereographs by little known Southern photographers Osborne and Durbec. These collections include photos of the interior of an African American church, and various scenes of Southern plantation, camp, and city life.

The most remarkable are the colorized stereographs. The best of these pre-Ted Turner photos were done by the E. and H. T. Anthony Company of New York, the premier stereographic photographer and marketer of the time. This company also devised the "instantaneous" camera, which enabled action shots by using a mechanical shutter.

Few of us today could afford our own stereograph collections, but this book is a good substitute. The photographs are beautifully presented. Zeller uses a period-type of font for each chapter heading, and the text is written so that your kids won't even know they're getting a lesson in history, photography, marketing, and human nature all at the same time.

The Civil War mystique is a direct result of its photographic legacy. It gives the Civil War an aura and substance which continues to carry its meaning and message forward into modern American memory. Zeller adds to the mystique with these newly published stereograhic pictures. They help us imagine what our fellow Americans experienced, sense what these people might have been like, and better understand the kind of people they were. Even if your children don't read the text, they'll get the message.