Lisa Robinson's weekly History of Photography Column
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History of Photography: Stereoscopic Photography

Antoine Claudet. Stereoscopic Print.

Stereostopic photography is yet another blip in the history of photography where the photograph was still working to find its’ true identity. It’s based on binocular vision, which is the action of the brain associating two slightly different images (each one through a separate eye) as one image which in turn creates an effect of depth. Given it’s introduction in the early 1800’s, you can imagine the novelty of this early “virtual reality” that people experienced!

We owe the beginning of stereoscopic photography to a man by the name of Sir Charles Wheatstone. In 1832, he invented the binocular type device, called a stereoscope, that enabled each eye to view each image separately thus creating the three dimensional effect. He made stereographs from  daguerreotypes (but found the metal plates produced odd reflections) and from calotypes (but found the light sensitivity too slow and therefore didn’t produce sharp enough results for the proper effect to render). Given the refinements yet to be made, Wheatstone’s version of the process didn’t pick up a whole lot of steam until the late 1840’s when Sir David Brewster tweaked the design in to what he called a refracting stereoscope.

Brewster’s refracting Stereoscope.

In Brewster’s version, he placed a pair of lenses 2.5 inches apart (side by side) in a small box. He created small doors on the side of the box to let in light, and a small slit on the bottom of the box at the end furthest from the lenses to allow stereoscopic prints to easily slide in and out. He also made the bottom of the box out of frosted glass, which let in some more light but mainly allowed for the additional function of viewing transparencies.

At the Great Exibition of 1851, Brewster exhibited his refracting stereoscope to Queen Victoria who was immediately taken by it. We all know that once royalty fancies a product, the public is soon to follow, and follow it did! Within three months, over 250,000 refracting stereoscopes were sold along with over a million stereoscopic prints. By this time, stereoscopic prints were made via the collodion process because of it’s nature to easily duplicate prints. In 1856, the London Stereoscopic Company had pushed mass production of stereo cards into most middle and upperclass homes. With their success, the company began sending photographers around the world to create stereo cards of over 100,000 different places and views. This contributed to solidifying photography’s place as a tool for education, a tool for discovering, and a tool for recording people or places as a record to be viewed at a later time.

Now, some people (including Oliver Wendell Holmes) were frustrated by the stereoscope viewer itself. Holmes often complained that it gave him headaches. After all, it is slightly unnatural to go from viewing one scene with two eyes to two scenes in two eyes. It can be hard work for the brain to “marry” the two separate images into one, not to mention not everyone has perfect vision as well as some have varying astigmatism that could all affect viewing ease.  In 1861, with the help of Joseph L. Bates, Holmes designed a hand held stereoscope viewer that allowed individual adjustments for viewing distance and solved his headaches. It had the bonus of being lighterweight and cheaper than Brewster’s contraption and since it wasn’t patented, copies flooded the market and it became the most popular version.

The popularized stereoscope designed by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Joseph L. Bates

Naturally, with all things popular, the photography “purists” at the time saw the stereoscope as just a gimmick and took exception to it. Considering photography had always been a translation of the 3-D to 2-D, to have it go another step and feign going back to 3-D was against what they believed to be photography’s intended purpose; to create an impression of nature, not reproduce it. Like all trends though, there was no denying the profitability and many photographers found themselves taking their classical photos first and tacking on a stereoscopic view second to sell as an add on.

The stereoscope remained popular until waning in the 1870’s with the financial crash of 1873. Many photographers were put out of business or forced to cut costs by copying other’s stereocards (this was obviously before federal copyrights!). Unfortunately, the copying of stereocards repeatedly lead to a decline in quality and therefore a decline in viewing experience. Mostly only the largest companies survived while the small companies disappeared. This lead to a climate of corporations beginning to control what imagery was dispersed and began the rise of publishing controlling the visual language of cultures. In the 1920’s the Keystone View Company survived the depression by focusing on the education sector.  They made stereo views until the rise of the color television in the mid 1960’s. I can also safely venture a guess that many of you reading this article are familiar with one of their products from your childhood: the View Master 3-D which was a plastic stereoscopic viewer that had images on little paper mounted round discs. I know I had one! You can still find these toys in stores and novelty shops today!

Popular stereoscope toy of the mid 1900’s and one of today’s novelty toys, the View Master 3D.
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