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Stereoscopic Photographs

Stereoscopic Photographs


The Museum has a large collection of stereoscopic photographs. Not all are catalogued individually, but there are over 700 monochrome examples, plus further colour images. So popular and universal was the viewing of these three-dimensional images that by mid Victorian times it was claimed there was 'no home without a stereoscope'. Like cartes de visite, which became fashionable at the same period (see narrative to 12771), the stereoscopic photographs were collected avidly, both individually and in sets; and as well as huge numbers produced commercially they could also be made by a local photographer or the skilled amateur. Distant lands and exotic cultures could be viewed alongside your own house or family.

The Museum has acquired several collections assembled during the heyday of their popularity and illustrating this diversity, including the collections of Robert Gurney (11984, 92546, etc.), C. M. Bertie (12344, 56099, etc.), the travel writer and artist Estella Canziani (12472, 12610, etc.), and the biologists W. B. and P. H. Carpenter (17386, 12467, etc.). Others have accompanied stereoscopic viewers, of which the Museum has a large number; in some cases quantites of photographs remain with their viewers (as in 17386 and 62327, while in 58954, 91000, and 96673 they are fitted on carousels). Many of the Museum's stereoscopes and some individual photographs were acquired as part of the Clay Collection of instruments, which the Museum purchased from R. S. Clay in 1944. Another important group came with the Minn Bequest in 1961, from the Oxford collector and amateur photographer Henry Minn.


The coincidence of the invention of the stereoscopic viewer (stereoscope) with the beginnings of photography created one of the first great photographic fashions. The first type of viewer, devised by Wheatstone in 1838, used mirrors to resolve two entirely separate images. These have seldom survived together (later generations not recognising them as a stereoscopic pair). The true lenticular binocular stereoscope was invented in 1849 by Sir David Brewster. The device was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where it caught the popular imagination, and it was commercially made from that date. Early Brewster-type stereoscopes in the Museum's collection include 15698, 63293, 90271, all hand-held, and 81905 mounted on a turned stand. Later forms developed in both directions, as a more solid item of furniture (58954 and 91000 table-top, 96673 floor-standing) and as an ever-simpler hand-held viewer (21428, 87406, 24379, 62327, 27897). The cabinets of the large ones contained a rotating mechanism or carousel that both stored a large number of photographs and presented them in succession to the eyes on turning a knob.

Later, towards the end of the century, the coincidence of the introduction of the first colour processes with a revival of the stereoscopic fashion meant that early colour transparencies were often stereoscopic, and a new range of viewing devices was invented for them (Ives's photochromoscope 81803, Richard's taxiphote 43792, the latter also with an elaborate storing and changing arrangement; and for a very simple small viewer "28371"). A taxiphote type viewer with a huge stock of non-commercial black-and-white stereoscopic slides dated 1930 (38588 and 57208), probably taken by Henry Minn, shows how, although the craze subsided, interest in '3D' persisted, as indeed it still does.

Brewster's invention required a pair of images mounted together side-by-side as one unit. They were not identical of course, they had to be taken from a slightly different angle; frequently also one is under-exposed compared to the other. The single-piece stereoscopic photograph (stereogram or stereograph) was introduced in 1851, by Jules Dubosq in Paris and by Antoine Claudet in London, using at first the daguerreotype process (25312 and 79058 are by Claudet); while from the same year C. M. Ferrier used the albumen-on-glass transparency process (13249, 13286, 13288 are early but anonymous examples). A camera capable of taking the two photographs simultaneously was on the market by 1853 - though evidence that early stereographers did not use it is sometimes to be seen (as in 11987, 12380, and 12466).

The individual image was approximately 3 by 2 ½ inches, producing the familiar stereoscopic format of about 3 ¼ by 6 ¾ inches (approximately 84 x 170 mm) shared by daguerreotypes, glass transparencies, and the ubiquitous stereo-cards (paper photographs, usually albumen prints, mounted on card). Occasionally someone departed from the format (as in L. D. Johnson's larger Vineland views 12608, 12609, 12610 of the 1870s); while the colour pioneers of the 1890s and early 20th century developed smaller formats, such as Ives's for viewing in his photochromoscope (63313, 82607) and Richard's for his taxiphote viewer and camera (18443, "28371"), which became a new standard size. An even smaller format in the early 20th century is exemplified by 21672, which are just 30 by 70 mm, the captions so tiny that presumably a viewer that also magnified was necessary.

Early stereoscopic photographs, like other early photographs, were sometimes hand tinted, or thoroughly hand coloured. On prints, the colouring often seems to inhibit the stereoscopic effect and flatten the image, which may be why it is less common later. Successful coloured images with impressive stereoscopic depth however include 12467 and 11992. The latter incorporates an example of self-reference characteristic of the technique: it depicts drawing room recreations, among them the viewing of stereoscopic images (through the door in the distance). Early stereoscopic still life ensembles that include stereoscopes are 25312 and 32512. Some historians and collectors routinely identify early hand-coloured images as salted paper prints (calotypes), but it is more likely that most of them are in fact albumen prints. Although the Museum's collection contains several hundred early stereo-cards (of the 1850s and 1860s), only one of them appears to be a calotype (12437).


The stereoscopic fashion had two phases. Starting with the daguerreotype in the early and mid 1850s it had reached the level of a craze by the 1860s, with mainly albumen prints on card but also some glass positives and transparencies, using the collodion or more usually the albumen process. After a lull the fashion revived in the 1890s and lasted until the First World War (see 52322 and 92612), this time served largely by gelatine or carbon prints on card and some glass transparencies (26428), including the new colour transparency processes that began to be introduced in the 1890s. The most famous of all the commercial producers of stereograms, the American firm of Underwood & Underwood, flourished during this second phase, producing sets in boxes that imitated the appearance of books (45701, 70531, 92546). Their very appropriate motto, which would have delighted the inventors of photography, was 'Sun Sculpture'.

Like many fashions based on novel ways of viewing (from the 18th-century zograscope to digital television), its great recommendation at the time was an exaggerated notion of its realism - promotors, even those whose priorities were not commercial but scientific (such as Charles Piazzi Smyth; see narratives to 13006), claimed that the stereogram's illusion of three-dimensionality was a more faithful rendition of reality. Unaccustomed as yet to the realism of photography never mind the depiction of three-dimensionality, the public was for a time as intoxicated with this photo-optical illusion as it was to be later with the next advance - movement. As a new window on the world from the comfort of the Victorian drawing room, it is not an exaggeration to say that the stereoscope and its photographs were the equivalent and precursor of television.


The stereoscope was in its day the drawing-room equivalent of the magic lantern. They both mixed education and adventure, entertainment and moralising. Prominent themes were travel and topography, antiquities and exotic cultures; while another speciality of both was stories told through posed theatrical scenes or living tableaux (11993). These merge into a range of somewhat theatrical compositions, frequently referred to loosely as 'genre' images, illustrating types, characters, or 'ideals' (11998 'Ireland's Eyes', 11999 'Love's Young Dream'), comical or sentimental situations (11996, 11997), or just typical domestic scenes (11992 domestic recreations, 12003 a courting couple). It is sometimes difficult to tell whether a 'character' composition like 'The Money Lender' (12467) is meant as a stand-alone stereotype or is part of a story sequence. Topographical scenes double as illustrative types too: rather than a real place they become 'A Quiet Moment' (12367), 'Scenes in Our Village' (12004, with verse), or 'The Meadow' (12440). Sculpture and still life were also popular subjects at first. Still life compositions might be heavily symbolic (12007, 18382) or just eye-catching (12444, 32512, 67273) - though the Victorians could make anything symbolic or moralistic (such as the arrangements of dried leaves entitled 'Beautiful in Death', 12442 and 12443).

Except in the genre images, portraits were never very popular, perhaps because they reminded viewers of the falsity of the stereoscopic illusion - figures in themselves often do not look very three-dimensional, except against their background, giving the 'cardboard cut-out' effect. They were tried from the outset, and in the hands of fine photographers were by no means unsuccessful - 45130 and 70831 for instance by Mayall, and 79058 by Claudet, though this is equally a genre composition, just as 31520 by Carpenter & Westley is equally a still life. And there was quite a vogue for nudes (lacking in the Museum's collection). Groups worked better than individual portraits (11984, 12423, 92546); but best of all were figures in landscapes - in fact the judiciously placed figure was a key to making the landscape look more interesting and more three-dimensional (even in ordinary flat photography), and became a central feature of the syntax of stereo-photography.

The collection includes a large number of Italian and French topographical stereograms. Grand buildings and monuments, and classical antiquities predominate - it is the 18th-century grand tour taken in the Victorian armchair. One of the best-known Italian stereo-photographers, Robert Rive of Naples, naturally specialised in views of Pompeii, some of them with Vesuvius ominously smoking in the background (12483, 12488, 98366); while the Felici studio in Rome specialised in the buildings and antiquities of its home town (12505, etc.). There are many French and especially Parisian views too, though they are more often anonymous (17386, 12461, 13249, etc.). The glass transparencies made by the albumen process vied with and succeeded the daguerreotype in France, and continued to be made into the 20th century, but seem to have been much less common elsewhere. Translucent tissue and pierced stereograms are also typically French: viewed against the light they show unexpected colouring (12003, 12362, 12437), change from day to night (12438), or most often a chandelier or candles light up through pinhole piercings (12002, 12362, 33311, 90704; or stars in the case of 12438).

In America the focus was different: modern urban scenes and busy streets, grand urban buildings such as hotels and post offices (12561, 12351), railroads and bridges and dockyards (13218, 12572, 12549), and more railroads (12577, 12589), and more 'beautiful' bridges (12575, 12576); plus the scenery of wild and remote parts of the continent, especially in the wake of their penetration by the railway (12606). Before cowboys and indians came to dominate the image of 'the west', the story of the Mormons and the foundation of Salt Lake City (in 1847) caught the European imagination, and photographers such as C. R. Savage and C. W. Carter recorded the developing town (12584, 12603), as well as the Union Pacific Railroad that led to it.

Edward Anthony of New York, who had been an American representative of Talbot, as well as venturing west, was one of the pioneers of 'instantaneous' photography, which he used from 1859 to record the busy streets of New York (12554 to 12557, 12559 to 12562), and also its busy harbour (12551). His street scenes are classics, and created a completely new modern genre, with which the empty streets of Oxford (12403, 12430) could not compete; though Paris and London could try (13253, 13254, 13232). An early English attempt at the busy-street genre comes from the unlikely metropolis of Great Yarmouth, where the enterprising local amateur Henry R. Harmer took rare early stereoscopic views of the busy market place (11986, 11987; and see 13013 for more Harmer).

Inevitably at such an early period some of these photographs, Great Yarmouth and Salt Lake City being equally cases in point, are important from a documentary point of view, a retrospective value that was often not the photographer's intention - though sometimes it certainly was. Robert Howlett's famous images of 1857-58 showing the construction of Brunel's steam ship the Great Eastern include a stereoscopic series, and demonstrate a technical and pictorial eye that sadly produced no further evidence, for Howlett died aged only 28 the very year the project was completed. The quality of the pictures is almost immaterial given the value of such an early photographic record of marine technology and shipbuilding (12468 to 12471). Views like 'The Basket Maker', showing the basket-ware shop of Elam & Son in Marylebone Lane, London (12451), are now precious records of a vanished world.

Mary Parsons, Countess of Rosse, like Harmer one of the enterprising amateurs who took up stereoscopic photography in the earliest period, produced from about 1855 photographs of her husband's giant telescope that are similarly of such interest as documents that we may forget to admire her compositional skill, or the difficulties of manipulation she overcame as an amateur using the wet collodion process. The Museum's examples of a few of her photographs (12668) are halves of stereoscopic pairs; but an anonymous stereoscopic portrait of the Irish astronomer Thomas Romney Robinson (66260) is probably her work too.

As mentioned previously, serious scientists were also gripped by the fashion and imagined they saw advantages in employing stereoscopic photography. Charles Piazzi Smyth's project to document his 1856 expedition to Teneriffe stereoscopically led to the extraordinary notion of a stereoscopically illustrated book (13006, published in 1858). Smyth's photographs show the expedition and the scenery it encountered. Yet although the three-dimensionality of very distant objects is imperceptible, his astronomer colleagues catered for the fashion by contriving stereoscopic photographs of the Moon (13292 by Warren De la Rue, 13216 by J. A. Whipple) and of Mars (13195 by John Browning). To obtain the illusion of three-dimensionality Browning made a globe of Mars, with the latest observations accurately mapped on to it, and photographed that. The trick in the case of the Moon was to photograph it at a slightly different longitudinal phase, but at the same age (and thus in a different month - Whipple's is dated February 7 and April 6, 1860). The effect was paradoxical, in that while stereoscopic photography was attempting to mimic the three-dimensionality seen by the eyes, it revealed for the Moon a three-dimensionality that the eyes do not really see.

Tony Simcock
May 2011

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