The Third Dimension in the History of Photography

Mass-Media Phenomenon of the 19th Century

In 1839 Louis Daguerre in France and William Henry Fox Talbot in England almost simultaneously introduced their inventions of photographic processes to the world – coincidentally (or not) just a year after Charles Wheatstone demonstrated the physiological basis for visual depth perception. Over the next decade photography and stereoscopy developed hand-in-hand.

At the first world's fair, the Great Exhibition of 1851, a stereoscope captured the fancy of Queen Victoria and many other visitors. 3D viewing quickly jumped from the science laboratory into the British parlour. In the United States, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (father of the Supreme Court justice) invented a scaled-down viewing device (the “Holmes viewer”, still available on eBay today) which he purposely left un-patented to further his goal of democratic education of the masses. A 3D boom was sparked in America.

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Travel in those days was expensive, but stereograms offered virtual voyaging for stay-at-home middle- and working-class people. Views of famous European landmarks and far-flung “exotic” locales were especially popular. Stereo viewing was a social activity, with friends gathering to share the latest additions to their stereogram collections. Americans were also hungry for pictures of new territories opening up in the West, and after the Civil War government-sponsored survey expeditions made sure to include photographers in their teams. Timothy O’Sullivan accompanied the King and Wheeler surveys, and E.O Beaman documented John Wesley Powell’s second expedition to the Colorado River. Many of the photographs they took were 3D images.

What makes mid-19th century stereo-mania particularly interesting is its unfolding along the lines of so many media trends of our own time: a new technology bursts on the scene, people embrace it enthusiastically, new companies spring up to supply the demand for content and hardware, innovations are made, products become better and cheaper, business flourishes. And like any media craze, stereo viewing was abandoned almost overnight when the next new thing came along: movies.

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20th Century Revival

In 1922, after decades of experimentation, the first public screenings of 3D motion pictures (now lost) took place in New York and Los Angeles, but the format didn’t really take off until the early 1950’s when Hollywood productions like House of Wax and Dial M for Murder rode a short-lived wave of popularity. In the home, old-fashioned wood and metal devices were replaced by plastic View-Masters. Invented in 1938 by piano tuner/photography enthusiast William Gruber, View-Master's first significant customer had been the US War Department, which purchased 100,000 viewers for training pilots and gunners during World War II. During the mid-Century decades, several camera manufacturers introduced double-lensed cameras and stereogram processing to the consumer market, allowing amateur photographers to make their own 3D images.

3D Photography as Art (?)

Just as an individual’s experience of 3D imagery can be empowering or frustrating, so critical response to 3D has toggled between gushing celebration and absolute denigration. For centuries artists and philosophers have thought deeply about the relation between the reality of the Cosmos outside the mind and our inner, mental realities – how these different worlds can be represented through artistic media. When stereoviewing came on the scene, it added a new perspective to this long conversation. More recently, virtual reality technology has made questions about the “solidity” of reality seem more pressing than ever.

Today 3D photography is generally regarded as a novelty, but for many decades in the 19th and early 20th Centuries stereo viewing was big business and an important driver in the development of photography. Whatever one’s opinion of stereoscopy's potential as serious art, the form does seem to exert an ongoing attraction that survives booms and busts in mass culture popularity. Perhaps the allure of 3D images attaches to a deep-seated desire for full comprehension in a world of randomness and confusion, a wistful dream to hold at least a tiny part of the Cosmos within our mental grasp.

In the Postmodern era artists and art critics began speaking to the beholder’s share in activating works of art, recognizing that paintings, sculptures, and even photographs, no matter how great their intrinsic merit, all depend on the viewer to complete them. This notion resonates with our understanding of the physiology of stereo vision, with its proposition that depth perception exists only in the mind and involves a projection from the brain out to the real world. 3D images remind us that humans have the capacity to synthesize multiple points of view, to construct solid out of flatness. With effort and practice we can learn to appreciate the existence of unity in difference, and difference in unity.

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