Discovering the dawn of 3D photography
Image credit: Nick Smith
Those thinking that 3D imaging is a post-digital innovation should think again, say Denis Pellerin and Brian May, authors of a new history of stereoscopic photography.
The problem with stereoscopic photography is that it’s just not taken seriously enough. This is the view of two of the world’s leading experts on the subject who, sensing an injustice on an immeasurable scale, have teamed up to produce the first exhaustive history of the early decades of the phenomenon. The combined work of French photo-historian Denis Pellerin and Brian May, proprietor of the London Stereoscopic Company fine art publishing house, ‘Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D’ is gloriously unconventional – almost as much as the characters that forged stereoscopic technology in the furnaces of the Industrial Revolution.
Unconventional because not many books these days come with an accompanying optical instrument. There’s a good reason to have one here because, no matter how compelling the story may be (particularly that of 19th-century innovator Charles Wheatstone), and no matter how absorbing the academically robust documentary research undoubtedly is, more than anything readers are going to want to look at the pictures. They don’t want to wonder what these 19th-century stereo images would have looked like back in the day. They want to see them for themselves in 3D. Help is at hand in the form of ‘The Owl’, designed by May himself.
May says the reason for writing a history of the early decades of stereoscopy is simply that “it’s so neglected. It is such a vivid and informative type of photography that it’s actually a crime that people don’t use it all the time.” While 2D representation, “goes all the way back to cavemen scrawling on the walls and making lovely pictures of the animals around them,” 3D is by comparison a recent phenomenon. Old‑school ‘flat’ imaging remained unchanged for millennia says May, “until Wheatstone comes along and in 1832 has this insight that no-one up until this point has had. That always boggles my mind. You’d have thought that Leonardo da Vinci would have figured out why we have two eyes.”
It was left to Wheatstone, a “shy, almost inarticulate genius”, to understand stereo vision. The way our eyes are arranged means that we observe the world from two slightly different positions, which are subsequently combined in the human brain to produce depth perception. “Our brain is constantly processing those tiny differences.”
Wheatstone’s early observations, says Pellerin, are literally the first steps along the evolutionary path to the type of 21st-century 3D digital-imaging found in medical equipment, VR headsets and product design software. “It was a revelation to the scientific community at the time. Remember, in the 1830s there wasn’t even flat photography,” which meant that Wheatstone had to draw his pairs of demonstration images by hand. In 1840, Wheatstone invited photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot “to take the first stereo photos ever. Nobody had done this before and so they ended up with exaggerated angles.” Gradually, the science community came to understand how to create images in pairs that could be combined properly with the assistance of optical instruments. “We could now see images of the world in 3D. For the public this was fabulous: the first photos they saw were of the exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851. It was a magical experience,” says Pellerin.
‘Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D’
Photography is often described as an art based on science, and for the authors of ‘Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D’, it is a crucial subset of the discipline that in the 19th century started the evolutionary pathway to 3D digital imaging that we have today.
In their fascinating account of the early decades of the technology, Denis Pellerin and Brian May capture the moment when stereoscopy became one of the great entertainments of the era, only to spend much of the 20th century languishing in the shadows of ‘flat’ photography. The birth of stereography is shrouded in controversy, and the authors go to extraordinary lengths to put the record straight, and especially to make the case of the role played by a British inventor, the largely forgotten genius Charles Wheatstone.
‘Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D’ is destined to become the benchmark against which all future assessments of the technology will be measured.
While Wheatstone may well have been the most important figure in the birth of 3D photography, his significance has been overshadowed by the contributions of other scientists, notably Sir David Brewster (whose work on light polarisation is remembered in his eponymous angle of incidence). Brewster was but one of many figures that seem to have pushed Wheatstone (the undoubtedly eccentric but good old-fashioned Victorian genius) into the margins. May says that there are many such controversies and injustices afoot in the early history of stereoscopy. Part of the reason for joining forces with Pellerin on the project – Pellerin is the author and May is the book’s editor – was to restore reputations, dispel myths and unearth stories “that will shock at least some of the established photographic community”.
Today it’s easy to think of stereoscopic photography as being the obscure and underrated poor relation of conventional ‘flat’ photography (both authors tend to use the adjective with the faintest tone of disapproval). But this is just one of those inaccuracies that the book sets out to debunk. “Both types of photography started out pretty much at the same time,” says May. “Stereoscopy was huge back then. In fact, stereo photography took the lead for the common audience.”
The original London Stereoscopic Company – which May brought back to life ‘under new management’ in 2006 – “had a million stereo card views for sale. It was a big business.” Which leads to the question: what went wrong? The French photo-historian answers this in three words: “carte de visite.” The CdV, as it became known, was essentially a photographic business card that became wildly popular in the mid-1850s, that was traded among friends. Albums of CdVs were a popular fixture of the Victorian drawing room: “It was like the selfie, today,” says Pellerin sadly.
May explains: “The Victorians were a bit like us. They’d go helter-skelter into a craze and then it would be over, and they’d move onto the next thing. There’s a sense in which this has given stereography a bad name, as if it were a toy or something like that. Always in the history of photography, stereography is sidelined and treated as a novelty. But in fact, it’s a visual revolution.” Commenting on its relevance today, May says “stereography hasn’t had its day yet. People just haven’t realised its power.”
To support this point, May reflects on his current work in space exploration. “Most of the Nasa teams that are sending missions to objects in the solar system are now into stereoscopy in the manner of the Victorians. I was lucky enough to be involved with the New Horizons programme where I put together the first stereoscopic photo of Pluto. That’s one of the most memorable moments in my life.”
‘Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D’ by Denis Pellerin and Brian May, is from the London Stereoscopic Company, £60
Windows on the world
There is no doubt that the stereoscope started a visual revolution which was as important in opening the world to the Victorians as the invention of perspective was in enabling artists to give a more accurate representation of a 3D world on a flat surface.
Before this avalanche of affordable stereoscopic slides, most people only knew of the world through the tales of travellers and the imperfect woodcuts in the illustrated magazines of the time. Suddenly they had at their disposal an instrument which placed them right in the middle of the scenes before their eyes. That enabled them to see the monument, statue, landscape, palace or drawing room they were looking at exactly as it had appeared to the photographer, and in its true depth and solidity.
Obviously, they could not walk around the statue or monument, open the door that they saw, touch the objects they had before them. But it was a million times better than a woodcut, engraving or even a painting. It was like looking with both eyes through a window in a wall. You couldn’t turn your head and you couldn’t reach for anything. But you could see what was in the frame in front of your eyes, with everything there life-size. It must have been a real shock at first – a feeling that cannot be fully appreciated today because we have been saturated with images since we were born – and it generated a desire for more places to visit. The key to the prolonged success of the stereoscope lay in the capacity of the publishers to provide more and better images. Marc- Antoine Gaudin wrote that “the fad for this wonderful instrument will never come to an end on the condition that the public’s curiosity will constantly be fed, as they are naturally craving for something new all the time”.
Edited extract from ‘Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D’ by Denis Pellerin and Brian May, with permission
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