Picturing Conflict: the Arts of War
A Stereoscope Viewer

A stereoscope viewer
© National Museums Northern Ireland

ENQUIRIES: 

  • What was a stereoscope? How did it help people to visualise the war? What kind of subject matter did the stereo cards illustrate and why?

  • In what way did the film, The Battle of the Somme, mark a change in the government’s attitude to film? Why was the film so popular? Why was it so significant? Why are war films popular today? What was the German response to the film?

 

How was photography used to spread information about the war?

The first stereoscopes were developed in the nineteenth century, both as a form of home entertainment and a tool for the scientific investigation of vision.  During the First World War, stereoscopic photographs were produced in large numbers and helped people to visualise the conflict as it unfolded across the world.

Stereoscopes should be seen as precursors to modern television or 3D entertainment. They use two nearly-identical images, each taken a few inches to the side of the other. When viewed through two lenses the scene leaps into 3-Dimensional life.

This viewer allowed two people to see two different sets of stereo cards at the same time. One set might contain as many as 600 different cards. They had long captions that, like the images, were subject to official censorship.

Stereo views covered a wide range of subject matter connected with the army, navy and air forces: downed Zeppelins or surrendered German ships; the new and revolutionary tanks; battle manoeuvres and preparations in the trenches. On the Home Front, they recorded significant public or military events.

This stereo card shows two soldiers seated side by side in a trench: one Scottish, the other Indian.  It reminds us that the European fighting Front was also a place of new social encounters; the British army included over one million Indian soldiers – mostly Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs.

The war provided a huge stimulus to all kinds of photography. Although soldiers were not officially allowed to take their own photographs, the mass availability of new portable vest cameras made this increasingly impossible to enforce.

From early 1916, the British, French and German armies all employed official photographers on the Western Front. They produced images for publication in newspapers and exhibitions, and official newsreels that were shown in cinemas and music halls.

The production, in 1916, of the film The Battle of Somme was a landmark in official war reporting and cinematography. Filmed in the weeks before and after the battle, its realism and immediacy was extraordinary for the time. Actual footage, showing the wounded and the dead, was combined with additional, staged material. The film was avidly watched by 20 million people, hoping, perhaps, to experience 'the thrill of battle', or catch a glimpse of a loved one or friend.

Many stereoscopic photographs of the war were in fact fakes. Views claiming to be of the battlefield were often taken during training, and staged in England rather than France.

FOLLOW UP ACTIVITIES:

  • Find out which developments in photographic technology in the early twentieth century made war photography easier, and how this impacted on the way we see the First World War.

British Library: First World War Photography

  • How were different forms of photography used to spread information about the First World War? How far should we believe the evidence of photographs of the war? How can photographs be misleading? 

EXPLORE RELATED OBJECTS:

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Stereoscope photograph

'A view of signallers keeping lookout on the eve of the Somme push'. (Realistic Travels Publishers, London…

'His Majesty inspecting the shells at Holmes and Co., Ltd., Munitions Works, Hull'

published by Realistic Travels
printing-out paper stereoscopic card, 18 June 1917
NPG x26380…

Stereoscope photograph

Shows a Scottish and an Indian soldier in an allied trench, entitled.‘Black Watch and Indians hold advanced…

Autographic Vest Pocket Kodak Camera, about 1918.

This very popular pocket camera was marketed as ' the soldier's camera' .
© Redbridge Museum

Private photograph by Lieutenant LA Lynden-Bell, 1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, 1915 (printed 2014)

View taken from a dangerous position.
Part of the 'Next of Kin' exhibition
© National Museums Scotland