Ideas | Alex Kingsbury

The cutting edge of war photography

“Some of the boys that climbed the Hill at San Juan,” Cuba.
“Some of the boys that climbed the Hill at San Juan,” Cuba.

The world can watch its wars live — from cruise missiles leaping off a warship deck to barrel bombs tumbling down into a neighborhood. Soldiers today are as likely to carry a helmet cam into combat as they are a canteen.

At the turn of the 20th century, tech’s cutting edge was the stereoscope, a binocular-like device that used two photographs to give the user a sense of 3-D. Hampshire College professor Michael Lesy’s new book, “Looking Backward: A Photographic Portrait of the World at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century,” features 250 selections from the California Museum of Photography’s trove of more than 300,000 stereoscopic images.

The two images here — and their original captions — were made during the Spanish-American War in 1898. These were distant lands for most Americans. Photographs gave them a glimpse of who they were fighting, even if the reasons why weren’t always clear.


“The Cathedral, Havana, Cuba.”
“The Cathedral, Havana, Cuba.”

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Alex Kingsbury can be reached at