Stereographs

A stereograph is composed of two pictures mounted next to each other, viewed with a set of lenses known as a stereoscope.  Taken around 7cm apart, roughly corresponding to the spacing of the eyes, the left picture represents what the left eye would see, and likewise for the right, so when observing the pictures through a stereoscopic viewer, the pair of photographs converge into a single three-dimensional image.

This optical marvel took the world by storm in the mid 19th century, becoming the first ever mass-produced photographic images sold, and a precursor to the motion picture phenomena.  They were so popular that it is said that every Victorian home—regardless of class—had a stereoscope and a collection of views sold in a range of prices.  There were numerous, cheap, card-mounted views alongside more costly types made of porcelain – or glass, such as this one (click on the images for more information):

photograph of the moon

…scenes on delicate tissue…

stereographic photo on an interior scene

…as well as hand-coloured or tinted views:

Stereographic photograph of a landscape

There were also differing printing styles as photographic processes evolved, including tintypes, ferrotypes, and Daguerreotype stereographs like this vignette of a scientist at work:

The original stereoscopic apparatus was invented in 1838 by Sir Charles Wheatstone from Gloucestershire, in the year of the birth of photography, yet his early experiments employed drawings instead of photographs, viewed through a system of angled mirrors.  Stereoscope design has been revisited and improved upon over the years, but it was Wheatstone who first brought the phenomena to life.  An early improvement to the design was made by the Scottish physicist David Brewster, who replaced the mirrors with prisms in 1844, creating the ‘closed-box’ or lenticular stereoscope (similar in concept to the 20th century View-Master format).  Brewster is also credited with inventing the kaleidoscope and modernising the British lighthouse system.

Stereoscopes gained international recognition at the Crystal Palace Exhibition or Great Exhibition of 1851, which was photographed by T. R. Williams for the London Stereoscopic Company:

Stereoscopic image of the Great Exhibition

Queen Victoria was greatly impressed by the stereographic equipment at the exhibition, displayed by the pioneering French photographer, Jules Duboscq.  With her enthusiasm and seal of approval, their appeal was boosted to such an extent that by 1856, more than half a million viewers had been sold and the vogue spread to America.  A new type of device known as the Holmes stereopticon or the American stereoscope was promptly invented by Oliver Wendell Holmes, an open viewer utilising natural light, which would go on to dominate the market between around 1880-1940.

Large companies such as Negretti & Zambra, Underwood & Underwood and The Keystone View Company were soon commissioning photographers to travel the length and breadth of the world, publishing tens of thousands of views a day towards the end of the 19th century.  Popular themes included the engineering wonders of the industrial age like the building of skyscrapers and the American railroads, alongside the travelogue or sightseeing slides depicting almost every corner of the globe.  These views assisted in ushering in the first waves of tourism and travel to a wider public, including views of the pyramids and tombs of ancient Egypt:

Stereoscopic image of the Pyramids

Buddhist ceremonies and temples in Japan

Photograph of a Buddhist Cemetery

…the palaces of Scotland

Stereograph of Holyrood Palace

…and the Mayan ruins at Copan in western Honduras.

Stereograph of Mayan temple ruins

Before long, there were comical and novelty views, peep-show style pictures, educational box sets for schools, and news-related sets portraying disastrous events like the Great Fire of Chicago in 1871 and the aftermath of hurricanes and floods.

Eventually one of the largest producers, the Keystone View Company, cornered the market and by 1921, owned the negatives and catalogues of almost all their competitors.  However, over the next twenty years, the concept had been completed overtaken by the rise of cinema and television so Keystone shifted to manufacturing ophthalmic equipment, tieing in neatly with the origins of the stereoscope’s invention by optical engineers and scientists.

They were rebranded as a child’s toy and once again made their debut at a World’s Fair, this time in New York, 1939.  View-Master and Tru-Vue were the leaders of the new formats, issuing a number of colourful, plastic models, several of which are on display in the V&A Museum of Childhood at Bethnal Green.

These new companies still produced the traditional scenic views, among the most popular were the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park scenes, but these were gradually replaced in favour of cartoon characters and television stars, thriving between the 1960s and 1980s.  It was only in 2009 however, that the scenic views were finally discontinued completely.  171 years of overall production have left a staggering topographical record of several million stereographs, held in the collections of universities, museums, and private owners, comprising the work of thousands of largely anonymous jobbing photographers who documented a rapidly changing and multifarious world. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *