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.