WASHINGTON — Moments “frozen in amber” is what Robin Stanford calls these images from the Civil War.
An enslaved woman breastfeeding her baby at “Uncle July’s cabin” on a St. Helena Island, S.C., plantation
Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter before and after they fell in the opening hours of the Civil War
Slaves worshiping in 1860 inside Zion Chapel, an Episcopal missionary church on Rockville plantation in South Carolina’s low country
Soldiers’ skeletons and fresh graves on the Spotsylvania and Wilderness battlefields
Scenes from the mid-war Port Royal Experiment, abolitionists’ attempt to remake African–Americans’ lives near Beaufort, S.C.
Those and 500-plus other images from America’s deadliest conflict are coming to your laptop, desktop or smartphone, thanks to one Texan and the photo geeks at “the nation’s library.”
Stanford is a Houstonian who devoted decades to collecting Civil War and Texas stereographs, taken by a twin-lens camera much as human eyes capture the same image from slightly different angles.
On Friday, a few journalists visiting the Central Vault of the Library of Congress’ Prints & Photographs Division got a sneak peek at a sample of the Stanford Collection and a chance to talk with the spirited, competitive person who assembled them.
The library has acquired a selection of her much larger trove, choosing scenes that it did not already have in its vast holdings. The division’s staff has already begun cataloguing, scanning and digitizing them. A first batch of 77 is now live on the library’s website, loc.gov (search “robin stanford collection”). The library’s high-resolution, downloadable scans are prized by researchers and widely enjoyed by the general public.
“The collection has extraordinary depth, and many of the images are exceedingly rare,” expert Carol M. Johnson, who recently retired as the library’s curator of photography, said of Stanford’s hoard. “It’s the largest Civil War stereo collection that I am aware of.”
Last summer, Johnson spent three days at Stanford’s home inventorying the collection based on her knowledge of the library's Civil War holdings. Hired as a consultant by the nonprofit Center for Civil War Photography (civilwarphotography.org), which helped cement the sale, Johnson prepared a 40-page roster of images not held by the library.
Learning of a new collection, like Stanford’s, “makes the field of photo history exciting,” she said.
Johnson’s favorite scenes from the Stanford Collection are “the plantation views show us how the slaves lived,” she said via email. “They are great documentation of the slave homes, their workshops, even the interior of their church during a service. The 3–D aspect of the stereo puts the viewer right there on the plantation.”
Two Southern photo studios, Hubbard and Mix and Osborn & Durbec, recorded those scenes. There are very few in existence because there was little commercial market for views of slave life, said Bob Zeller, president of the Center for Civil War Photography.
“They are so infrequently found that the auctioneer Wes Cowan has never even handled an Osborn & Durbec,” Zeller said. Cowan, a photo-collecting veteran, is one of the experts in PBS’ long-running “History Detectives” program.
Zeller said he is fascinated with the collection’s images of Beaufort, S.C., which fell in early 1862—one of the first areas of the South occupied by Union troops.
Plantation owners fled, leaving hundreds of African–Americans to fend for themselves. Northern missionaries came and set up schools for them. One abolitionist, Laura Towne of Philadelphia, started the Penn School on St. Helena Island and stayed 20 years.
The school (penncenter.com) has operated ever since, and provided a safe haven during the civil rights movement for Dr. Martin Luther King and other leaders’ strategy sessions, Zeller noted.
THE WAR IN 3–D
A cool feature of stereographs is that, seen through red and blue glasses—available for free from the Civil War Trust—they pop to life in three dimensions.
That’s how most 19th-century people would have seen them. Some 70 percent of all Civil War documentary photos were shot as stereo views, were hugely popular and sold in huge numbers.
Now, inside the library’s Madison Building across from the U.S. Capitol, the experts marveled at what Stanford has preserved of those photographers’ work.
“To be able to add 500 sterographs that we didn’t have before—that’s pretty phenomenal,” division chief Helena Zinkham said in an interview.
“And why is it possible? Because a woman in the 1970s, raising a toddler, caught the history bug, and moved from a fascination with three-dimensional viewing to really looking closely and carefully at the cards. The pictures bring the war alive for her.”
For the Texan, the obsession started innocently enough.
Raising her first son, she read Douglas Southall Freeman’s biography of Robert E. Lee to pass the time, and grew entranced by his descriptions of people’s lives during the war, she recalled last week.
Then she spotted an old stereo viewer and some photo cards at an antique shop, and thought they would make an interesting curio for the getaway farmhouse she was furnishing for her husband, a hardworking physician, and their family in the country west of Houston.
But the stereo images proved fascinating to the history buff. Before long, she was buying them from dealers, eagerly awaiting the monthly catalogues they would mail. “One thing led to another,” she said.
After five decades, Stanford, now in her 80s, had assembled more than 1,500 stereo views. She calls them her “babies.”
Stanford had planned to give her collection to her surviving son, John, a physics professor at Concordia University who shared her interest in American history.
But when he died a year ago, “the air just went out of me,” she said, and she stopped collecting.
In time, Zeller urged her to consider finding a good home for her lifetime’s work. She wanted proceeds from any sale to help finance her granddaughters' high school and college educations.
Stanford and Zeller's first and best hope was that the Library of Congress, because of how it shares Civil War images with the world, would be interested.
Zinkham, the library’s photo chief, said its acquisition of Stanford’s collection serves as a coda to the final weeks of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary.
The library opened the sesquicentennial by receiving the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War ambrotypes and tintypes, portraits that soldiers and their families held dear.
Zinkham said she sees Stanford’s collection as a fine bookend to the sesquicentennial, one that “will carry us well into the future.”
ON THE WEB:
3–D stereo glasses: civilwar.org/photos/3d-photography-special