Stereophotography: Past and Future

Virtual reality was solidly established in the mid 19th century as a tool for entertainment and education, producing a corpus of millions of images preserved today as photographic stereoviews suited to digital presentation. Stereographic drawings and viewers capable of true 3D presentation were invented in 1838 by Sir Charles Wheatstone, quickly adapted in the following decade to use with photographic images. Initially these were limited to unique formats such as the daguerreotype, and expensive binocular viewers plagued by distracting reflections and poor optics. In 1868 the American writer Oliver Wendell Holmes invented a cheap hand held viewing device for mass produced side-by-side stereo albumen prints capturing independent left and right perspectives. These eye-popping three dimensional scenes were a common photographic format throughout the mid-19th century, when stacks of stereocards and a companion viewer populated most middle class American and European parlors. Commercial production of glass and card mounted original silver photographic prints became a big business, with many publishers issuing catalogs of thousands of images. Armchair travel to foreign locations (European grand tour, Egypt, Africa, Asia) , portraits of famous people (politicians, scientists, entertainers), capture of historic events (wars, exhibitions, public gatherings), and documentation of lost ways of life (Victorian Europe and colonial peoples) are but a few of the many topics represented. Images were initially purchased individually for private consumption, but later (by 1880) packaged into sets of 50-300 annotated scenes intended to recreate an entire journey or explain a thematic subject. "Boxed sets" devoted to specific countries or industries were crafted for educational use in schools and libraries, where they became common immersive experiences for entire classrooms of stereoscope-equipped children who listened to scene descriptions read by their teachers.

Visual media flattened back to 2 dimensions after WWI, when 2D color photography, movies, and television replaced the stereoscope. Carefully assembled stereoview groupings were destroyed or dispersed as libraries deaccessioned their collections and original Victorian collectors died off. Despite such losses, the sheer bulk of production ensured survival of a representative body of material which is a unique resource awaiting rediscovery by the public, scholars, and educators today.

New viewing technologies have the capacity to redeliver these snapshots of a lost world to individuals at 3d-enabled workstations, and groups interacting in a classroom environment. This may be accomplished with unaltered original images, or through their application as photographic scaffolds or wallpaper for objects within computer derived virtual models.

Stereophotography: Formats

Paper Views (Albumen prints)

This is the most common stereophotograph format, a silver emulsion photographic print mounted on stiff card. Sometimes the card is brightly glazed, with ornate printed decoration. Individual photos may be rectangular, or sometimes have an arched top like a window. After approximately 1875 the cards were heavier and made of special curved stock which when seen in a stereoscope increased the 3d effect. Usually had a legend on the back, or sometimes under the right image.

Glass Views.

Fragile, expensive, and stunning! Glass is coated with a photographic emulsion and the image backlit for viewing. Perhaps because of the expense, these were always carefully prepared with resultant excellent tonal range and microscopic detail unencumbered by paper texture. Peak popularity is early, from 1855-1870.


Tissue Views.

Also known as French tissue views, because this is where they were first made, and were most popular. There was no true color photography before about 1905 (autochromes) so hand tinting was the next best thing. Tissue views are a special type of tinted photograph where the silver emulsion image is printed on thin tissue paper, backed by another layer of tissue paper with brushed on color corresponding to element sin the picture. When viewed under reflected light, it looks like any other photograph but when backlit diffused color tinted the image. In addition to color, surprise elements such as balloons, comets, or a moonlit sky were sometimes painted on the backing tissue. These creative special effects are especially striking and may also include pricked pinholes to create points of light emphasizing jewelry, stars, fire, lit windows, or candles in the scene. Note: the red/cyan glasses of anaglyphic galleries distort original coloring, so these are actually much prettier than can be shown online in that format.