SMU’s exhibit of rare Civil War photos packs an emotional punch
Rare Civil War photos from the Robin Sanford Collection are on exhibit at DeGolyer Library.
The photographs are small, some might say tiny. But if you’re willing to lean over the display cases, getting as close as you can to ponder and pick out details, there’s a huge emotional payoff to be found in the Southern Methodist University exhibit “The Civil War in Photographs: New Perspectives From the Robin Stanford Collection.”
The intimate show, on view at SMU’s DeGolyer Library, showcases more than 300 rare stereographs or “stereos.” Each is a card, about the size of a postcard, showing two nearly identical photographic prints. When viewed through a stereoscope, the images became startlingly three-dimensional.
The exhibit doesn’t have stereographs set up to see the cards in 3-D — the photos are too rare and delicate to be viewed except behind protective glass. But SMU does have one stereograph and card displayed so you can get the idea. Also, a large-screen video monitor shows many of the stereos on a continuous loop for a closer look. Three-D glasses are available with which to look at the images, but they didn’t work well for me. I was better off just leaning in and squinting.
It’s especially interesting to note the tiny disparities in the side-by-side images, usually most obvious along the right or left edges. The two lenses in the special stereo cameras were set 2-1/2 inches apart, to mimic the 2-1/2-inch distance between most people’s pupils. So even though the lenses were aimed at the same scene, that minuscule variance means that on the left, for instance, you might see a full tree where on the right it’s just half a tree. Or the edge of a person’s coat. Or a bit of a building. As the exhibit’s curator, Anne E. Peterson, noted, “It’s fun to look for what’s different, like Where’s Waldo?”
The stereos are all from the collection of Houstonian Robin Stanford. The handful from Civil War-era Texas are extremely rare, as Texas saw little military action with only a few major battles fought here.
The show takes visitors from the beginning of the “War for the Union,” as it’s inscribed on many of the stereos (most of which were made by Union photographers), through the bloodiest battles, the war’s end and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Works by Alexander Gardner show the first images ever taken of corpses on an American battlefield.
The photos also depict the indignities inflicted upon the dead. Soldiers are seen half-buried in mud, or draped together at angles that imply horrific injury. One corpse is shown with his pants pockets turned inside out — someone thought to loot the dead man, apparently, but was in too big a hurry to bury him. In fact, leaving slain soldiers unburied was fairly common.<\p>
In addition to battle images, the exhibit shines a spotlight on pre-war slave life, plantation life in general and camp life for the soldiers — playing cards, getting their hair cut, drinking. For me, the most unsettling scenes depicted the burning of Atlanta by Union Army Gen. William T. Sherman. The man looks a bit deranged in his portrait. I’m a Southerner born and bred, so call me biased if you like, but if that man were wrapped in a Texas flag and singing Dixie, I still wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley.
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