Stereography and the Standardization of Vision

By Fowles, Jib | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Stereography and the Standardization of Vision


Fowles, Jib, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Stereographs, in vogue between 1870 and 1910 and decreasingly thereafter until the medium expired in the late 1930s, were commonplace items in many American homes, save those of the poor and lower working class (Jenkins 50). Perhaps one-half of the 16 million households of 1900 possessed a stereoscope holder and the stereograph cards whose twin photographs produced for spectators an eerie sensation of visual depth. Given the ubiquity of stereography over decades of American history, it is curious that the rage has received scant scholarly attention; Jonathan Crary notes factually, "There are few serious cultural or historical studies of the stereoscope" (116). A possible explanation for this omission is the virtual extinction of the medium; few cultural vestiges remain, and little of the communications legacy which might invite retrospection.

In one of the few recent mentions of the art form, Alan Tractenberg attempts to situate stereography by saying, "With the mass publication of stereo views of every imaginable subject on earth and in the heavens, the stereoscope became the first universal system of visual communication before cinema and television" (17). Similarly, the sole historian of stereography, William Darrah, observes, "The stereograph...was the first visual mass medium" (2). Yet it is surely more accurate to say that stereographs were the first photographic mass medium, as woodcuts and engravings had enjoyed an extended history, one that predates the introduction of the printing press, while lithographic reproductions were plentiful since early in the nineteenth century. In any case, it cannot be disputed that stereography was a true mass medium, delivering duplicated imagery to multitudes of citizens. The impact of this medium upon national life was considerable, if largely subterranean.

Stereographs (the word was coined by Oliver Wendell Holmes [the elder] in 1859 to replace the earlier "dual photograph" or "stereo view") compare more than favorably to the photographic, film and videotape media of today because, when viewed through a stereoscope holder, the experience is one of three-dimensionality, "The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture," Holmes informed the readers of the Atlantic Monthly (744). The two photographs mounted on a stiff card had been originally taken by a special camera with twin lenses set two and a half inches apart, the typical distance between pupils. When each image is then presented by the holder to a separate eye, the mind registers one image incorporating the feature of depth. It should be pointed out, as Rosalind Krauss does, that stereoscopic perspective does not recede flowingly into the distance, as it may in real life or in artistic representations, but rather shifts backwards by stops and starts; she explained, "The sterographic image appears multi-layered, as steep gradient of different planes, stretching away from the nearby space, into depth" (314). Nevertheless, the resulting impression is more vivid and engrossing than any two-dimensional photograph can offer. The magnetic quality of stereographic pictures accounts in some part for their enormous popularity at the time.

The stereographic effect--that the mind can be deceived by two-dimensional photographs into believing it is receiving a three-dimensional image--had been the discovery of Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838 (Gill 546-53). Experimenting in optics, Wheatstone constructed a device which presented one drawing of a solid geometric figure to one eye, and a slightly different drawing to the other. The resulting sensation was of depth, just as he had anticipated. Asserting the inventor's prerogative, Wheatstone created the label "stereoscope" for his device. After Daguerre's photographic process was revealed a year later, it was in time applied to making stereo views. Stereo daguerreotypes created a stir when displayed at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851; Queen Victoria asked for, and received, one for her personal enjoyment (Jones 17). …

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