Lincoln in 3-D

An Interview with Bob Zeller and John Richter

The Civil War Trust recently had the chance to sit down with Civil War photography experts Bob Zeller and John Richter, authors of the new book,
Lincoln in 3-D

Lincoln in 3-D Book Cover

Civil War Trust: Lincoln in 3D? Hasn’t this already been done?

Bob Zeller: No. Lincoln in 3-D is unique among the more than 16,000 books published on Lincoln. No one has ever previously published a 3-D photographic history of Abraham Lincoln with the hundreds of stereoscopic images that document that tumultuous era.

Trust: What’s the gimmick here? How did you turn roughly 150 year-old photos into 3D pictures?

BZ: There’s no gimmick. All of the 185 images presented in the book were taken in 3-D. Most were also issued that way. We restored the 3-D to a single photo – Lincoln’s body lying in state in his open casket – because only half the original stereo view still exists. Otherwise, these are all authentic 3-D photos taken that way during the Civil War era.  Many of the studio portraits in the book were never sold as 3-D photos, but were taken with a four-lens camera in a way that allows us to construct an authentic 3-D photo.

Trust: Why were Civil War Photographers taking pictures in 3D?

BZ: The 3-D photograph was the video of Civil War America. In a time when the world was lit only by fire, photography was a remarkable invention.  Our estimate is that 70 percent of documentary photographs of the war were taken in 3-D. That’s because photographers knew they could sell dozens or even hundreds of copies of a single stereo photograph in the form of 3.5x6.5-inch stereo view cards, which most Civil War Americans viewed through a simple hand-held stereo viewer. Stereo view cards cost 25 to 50 cents each back then, or about $5 to $10 in today’s money, and thus were Civil War America’s equivalent to a DVD or video tape.

Trust: Were all the pictures in the book intentionally recorded as 3D images?

BZ: Yes, all of the documentary photographs were taken as 3-D photographs. The studio portraits were taken with a multi-lens camera, almost always a four-lens camera that produced four images in a square on a 7x9-inch glass plate. This was primarily for mass production purposes, but the two side-by-side images from the upper lenses or the lower lenses had the eye-width separation necessary for a stereoscopic pair, so the four-lens camera also served as a stereo camera. Only a few studio portraits, however, were ever published and sold as stereo views.  Most of the studio portraits in this volume have never been published or assembled as 3-D photos.

Trust: I see numerous battlefield images in the book. How do these pictures relate to Abraham Lincoln?

BZ: The Civil War was Lincoln’s presidency. That’s all Lincoln knew as president. He was inaugurated only about five weeks before the war started, and it was not quite over when he was assassinated. Many of the battlefield images show Antietam and Gettysburg. Lincoln visited both places during the war and was photographed there, as we show.

Trust: What can looking at photographs in 3D teach us about the Civil War? What did this book project teach you?

BZ: The thing we’ve learned about Civil War photography over the years is that it is far more visually spectacular and sophisticated than history enthusiasts have ever realized. Most books present 3-D Civil War photographs in 2-D, and they are certainly dramatic enough to illustrate whatever text is being presented around them. But 3-D Civil War photography is the secret about the Civil War that Ken Burns never revealed. Most of the documentary photos in his series also were originally taken in 3-D. But it goes beyond that. Most of the original stereoscopic negatives of the key Civil War documentary photographs still exist, as well as the negatives of the studio portraits. These images were only available as prints from copy negatives, and in some cases both negatives of a stereo photo were inaccessible, until the turn of the 21st century. From 2000-2002, the Library of Congress, which owns the core collections of some 7,000 Civil War photographic negatives, including almost 2,000 3-D documentary photos, scanned all of the original glass plates at ultra-high resolution and made them available online as free downloads. Lincoln in 3-D is the first hardcover book that presents the original photographs with the clarity and detail of the original negatives. Compared to my previous two books of 3-D Civil War photos, The Civil War in Depth Volumes One and Two, this book is 3-D in HD.

Abraham Lincoln with Gen. George McClellan at Antietam in 3-D
Abraham Lincoln with Gen. George McClellan at Antietam in 3-D (Photo provided by John Richter)

Trust: How did you first get interested in Civil War photography? Why 3D?

BZ: I was around 10 years old during the 100th anniversary of the Civil War, and I had a family connection to Antietam – my ancestors were the Dunkers. I was always fascinated by history. The first antique I ever bought, at age 13, was a hand-held stereo viewer. Throughout my teen years and beyond, I slowly added to my small collection of 1870s-1900s stereo view cards.  I had no idea that the Civil War documentary photos I looked at in my childhood books about the Civil War books were shot in 3-D.  Finally, in 1980, at age 28, I was sitting in the living room of a dealer of Civil War photographs – my interest piqued by his ad in a Civil War magazine – when he showed me an original Alexander Gardner 1862 stereo view card of Bloody Lane at Antietam. I was absolutely floored. “Where have these been all my life?” I remember saying to myself. I bought that view and soon began to collect the Antietam series. I also began lecturing on the battle. I would show the Antietam photos in 2-D, but I yearned to show them in their original state – their highest form – as 3-D images. I also wanted to do a book -- the first 3-D photo history of the Civil War. I was able to simultaneously accomplish both goals in 1997 with the publication of my first book, The Civil War in Depth.

John Richter: Growing up 15 miles from Gettysburg I always had an interest in the Civil War. My older brother had a View-Master and some reels, mainly westerns and cartoons and I got a kick out of looking at them. One day in the drug store I saw a View-Master display and they had a packet, The Civil War made from the Library of Congress negatives. I had to have it and upon viewing it was amazed that some of the pictures that were in my Civil War books now appeared in 3-D. For me that was a very powerful feeling, looking at those views made me feel like I was standing on the battlefield. I now had my own little time machine. Many years later at a local auction I bought a stereo viewer and some cards. Now the hunt was on to find more cards, lucky for me at a nearby antique shop there was a dealer who specialized in stereo cards. This is when I first realized that those View-Master scenes where first issued as stereo cards and could be bought. I’ve been collecting them ever since.

Trust: Does each of you have a favorite 3D image, whether in this book or not?

BZ: My personal favorite spread in the book is pages 156-157, with the amazing stereo view from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art showing Lincoln giving his second inaugural address on the left-hand page and the image of the crowd gathered to hear him on the right, with the drunk guys in the lower right.  The shot of the crowd at the Grand Review is also a personal favorite, as well as the image of the local kids facing off against the Yankee cavalry at Sudley Ford, and the larger group shot of Lincoln at Antietam. But if I’m showing the book to someone for the first time, the first image I show them is the Brady image of Little Round Top. It’s tremendously historic, it’s as clear and sharp as you can get because it’s from the original negative, and the 3-D really pops.

JR: Lincoln and McClellan in the tent on the Antietam battlefield, page 70. A really strong 3-D image made from the original negative during a historic meeting. A very familiar image to any history buff but to see it in 3-D, it comes alive. We’re standing there with the tent flap pulled back peeking into history.  From a technical point of view it would be the Lincoln portrait on page 108.  With his long legs crossed it’s as if we’re in the room with Gardner taking the picture. This was one of many portraits made from a pair of CDVs from a four-lens camera. What’s exciting is up until this book nobody has viewed any of these images in stereo before.  In effect we have a new look at Lincoln, his cabinet, and generals.

Trust: The 3D glasses in the book are of the red/cyan variety. Is that the only way to see these images in 3D?

BZ: No, there are many ways to view 3-D. In many theater presentations, the twin stereoscopic images are presented through polarizing lenses, and viewers see the images in 3-D through polarized glasses, which are like sunglasses. More sophisticated theater presentations use glasses with blindingly fast shutters. During the Civil War, people saw the photos in 3-D by viewing original prints pasted onto 3-D cards using stereo viewers with convergent lenses. In each case, the method serves to trick the brain into seeing both images together simultaneously, which gives the optical illusion of 3-D.

Civil War Photography Expert John Richter Working on a 3-D Image
Civil War Photography Expert John Richter Working on a 3-D Image (John Richter)

Trust: If people take away one thing from Lincoln in 3-D, what do you hope that would be?

BZ: That the visual splendor of Civil War photography is far greater than they ever imagined.  There are many ways to break new ground in the field of Civil War photography. Sometimes it’s in discovering previously unknown photographs. Often it is in discovering historic details within known images, or discovering the previously unknown locations where Civil War photographs were taken. What Lincoln in 3-D does, more than anything else, is advance the presentation of Civil War and Lincoln photography to its most spectacular form yet, not only by using the original 3-D but by presenting, for the first time, dozens of images, fully restored, directly from the glass plate negatives, with an unmatched, unprecedented level of clarity and detail.

JR: By using the original 3-D photography in this book I hope it gives the reader a sense of being there as a witness to history.

Trust: Where can one learn more about Civil War photography?

BZ: Online, visit The Center for Civil War Photography at  The only written book-length narrative history of Civil War photography is my The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography (Praeger, 2005).  As mentioned above, I also wrote two previous 3-D photo histories of the Civil War, The Civil War in Depth Volumes One and Two (Chronicle Books, 1997 and 2000). Many libraries have the comprehensive, six-volume The Image of War, published in the 1980s by the National Historical Society, as well as the 10-volume Miller’s Photographic History of the Civil War, published in 1911. The works of William A. Frassanito, including Gettysburg: A Journey in Time, Early Photography at Gettysburg, and volumes on Antietam and the war in Virginia, all now published by Thomas Publications, are considered the hallmarks in the field.

Trust: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions.

BZ: You’re welcome.

JR: We appreciate your interest in our book and hope that our answers will enlighten those who are not familiar with 3-D photography.

More About the Authors

Bob Zeller
Bob Zeller is one of the country's leading authorities on Civil War photography. He is the author of "The Blue and Gray in Black and White: A History of Civil War Photography" (Praeger, 2005), the first narrative history about the war's photographers, what they did and why they did it. Zeller pioneered the modern presentation of stereoscopic Civil War photography with "The Civil War in Depth" (Chronicle Books, 1997), the first 3-D photo history of the war, and "The Civil War in Depth Volume II" (Chronicle Books, 2000). Bob, who is a writer, journalist and historian, spent 25 years in newspaper journalism, specializing in investigative reporter and later working as a motorsports beat writer covering NASCAR. Bob has published nine books, including his latest, "Jacob's Run" (Whittler's Bench Press, 2007), a historical mystery/adventure novel he wrote with John Beshears. He is also the author of "Daytona 500, An Official History" (David Bull Publishing, 2001). Zeller, 54, is a native of the Washington, D.C. area. Bob has been presenting lectures with 3-D slide shows of original Civil War photographs since 1997. Images from his Civil War photography collection were featured at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery exhibition on Mathew Brady in 1997-98. Bob lives in Trinity, N.C. with his wife, Ann, who is city manager. They have two grown children, Sara and Jesse.

John Richter
As a child, John Richter became aware of the use of stereo photography during the Civil War from his first View-Master set of views taken from Library of Congress negatives.  This first exposure to 3-D photography fed his already fervent interest in the Civil War because those views were of familiar Civil War scenes - but with depth!  Hooked on the 3-D experience and growing up 15 miles from Gettysburg, it wasn't long until John focused on Gettysburg and began building his world-class collection of period stereo views.  Views from his collection have appeared in Tim Smith's "John Burns The Hero of Gettysburg", Garry Adelman's "The Myth of Little Round Top," and both volumes of Bob Zeller's "The Civil War In Depth."  John has continued his collaboration with Bob Zeller in his latest book "The Blue and Gray in Black and White" by supplying several unpublished stereo views.  John has written for Stereo World and co-edited all of the CCWP's 99 Historic Images of... series of booklets.  John began utilizing stereo photography and joined the National Stereoscopic Association and the International Stereoscopic Union.  John has had years of experience in stereo photography using a 35mm Realist camera and a medium format Sputnik camera to capture images.

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