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Saturday, May 17, 2008

Stereophotography

One glance at the home page for this site would seem to show that stereophotography is a major obsession of mine.

Well, it's been an interest for a long, long time, ever since I received my first 3d viewer as a kid. I think it was a 'Vista-Screen': they always had grand names like that. Basically it was a three-part hinged affair in the sort of cream plastic that was generally used for such toys. You stuck a double photograph (a few came with the viewer) in the support and looked through the two lenses in the front part. I seem to recall that the effect was quite good.

Later I had a 'ViewMaster', the one stereophotography toy that caught on. Every kid had one. It took cardboard disks which contained about 20 little windows, each containing a very, very small transparency (I guess the format was 8mm), arranged around the perimeter. The viewer rotated these frames in line with a sort of binocular arrangement. The disks were mysteriously referred to as 'reels'. Funny what you remember.

The 3d you got from a ViewMaster was pretty good: viewer and reels were made to a high standard. The only snag was that you had to buy the reels from the ViewMaster Corporation (I seem to remember they were Canadian) and therefore you had to choose from the subjects they thought worthwhile. My memory was that their idea of their demographic did not include me. There was a lot of scenery (boring!), promotional slides for movies (generally Disney, boring!) and, worst of all, puppet re-enactments of worthy subjects such as scenes from the bible (terrible!).

You got bought these whenever a relative went on holiday or found a small stock of reels conveniently near to Christmas or a birthday. Sometimes the stock wasn't very large.

So then I grew up and much later went into 3d computer graphics and so the interest was rekindled. This time I started to buy the serious stuff. From antiques fairs and car-boot sales, I got together a modest set of antique, mainly Victorian, viewers and a staggering collection of stereo-cards.

From about the birth of photography right into the 20th century, past the 1st World War, stereophotographic cards were sold in packs to commemorate events, to document expeditions to far corners, to educate and to amuse. As with everything that was once so popular but is now a collector's hobby, the market is flooded with the indifferent - mostly interminable views of Swiss mountains.

The best are the views of long gone street scenes or engineering masterpieces.

In fact, in saying that, I'm really challenging the collection to prove it's worth. Why do stereophotography? What do the good 3d photos say about its utility?

Even as a lifelong fan, I would always resist (and advise against) saying: it's just like being there. It so falls short of that.

In fact, if you want to list and prioritise the factors which make for good, evocative 'being there' photography, then adding the 3d is often quite exactly offset by the discomfort in using a viewer or a viewing method. Straining to cross one's eyes while the two images drift in and out of register is enough to spoil anyone's experience.

Depth perception (which is all you get with these double images) is only one of a huge number of 'being there' factors. Disregarding the other senses - the smells, the sounds, the climate - being there visually is far more about parallax than binocular vision. The ability, really, to look around and round objects is much more engaging than being able to order the objects in a static view according to their distance.

That said (and since I'm not going to dismiss this hobby without some defence) as a modest trick, 3d stereophotography has a certain charm for scenes which are unavailable to you in person for reasons of distance, time or social condition.

If you really can imagine 'being there' while you look at a 2d image, then stereo doesn't add much. If the subject is one you don't know or don't have a memory of, then the extra dimension adds a little clarity to the definition. Certainly if your eye can't get the hang of an image because your mind can't relate to the subject, then simple stereo can act like a multiple image, filling in and clarifying, within the one view, those details and dimensions that don't come clear in the single shot.

The best for me are stereo views of buildings, engineering achievements and public events whose scale and importance can only be imagined. Bridges, world fairs, state happenings all benefit from this extra dimension. And, of course, there are the nudes...

So why do I put my holiday snaps on the web?

Well, first, because I can but also because I like to experiment with that small incremental visual cue that adds just a hint of scale, grandeur or definition to an otherwise pedestrian bit of amateur photography. I would be interested to hear if any site visitor feels the benefit of stereo.

Is it really like 'being there' for you. I can't tell because I was there to take the picture.

Posted by Martyn Horner at 13:43
Categories: Stereophotography