The story of the stereoscopes

The story of the stereoscopes

We talk to Denis Pellerin, curator of Dr Brian May’s stereoscope collection, about the nineteenth-century stereocards on display in The Fallen Woman.

We are now in the final days of the exhibition and hopefully you have all had a chance to see the show. In addition to paintings and archive documents, the exhibition also includes stereo photography. On display are stereoscopes holding nineteenth-century stereocards that depict the plight of the fallen woman. Visitors are invited to look through them and experience the magic of this early form of 3D photography. The works in the exhibition were kindly loaned by Dr Brian May from his extensive collection. We talked to Denis Pellerin, curator of this collection and director of the London Stereoscopic Company.

Please introduce yourself.

My name is Denis Pellerin. I am a photo historian specialising in nineteenth-century stereo photography.

How did you come to work with stereoscopes?

I have been interested in photography since the age of eight and in stereo photography for over 30 years. I started researching and writing about stereo photography as soon as I began collecting stereocards, as I was intrigued that I could not find any information about them. I was fortunate enough to be asked to catalogue the 33,000 odd stereos at the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and co-curate an exhibition there.

After that I became more and more involved in other collections and wrote several articles and books on nineteenth-century stereo photography for various institutions. This was a ‘hobby’ for many years until I met Dr May while we were working on his book Diableries. He invited me to come over and look at his collection (one of the biggest in Britain) and, on my third visit, he asked me if I wanted to stay! I could not miss such an opportunity and I have been the curator of his collection for over three years. Dr May is mostly interested in early British and French stereo photography, but his collection also includes lots of later American views and Vistascreen cards.

What exactly is a stereoscope?

A stereoscope is an optical instrument which helps fuse the two halves of a stereocard and create the illusion of depth from two flat pictures taken with an interval roughly equivalent to the distance between the two eyes. The first stereoscope (a word coined by its inventor, Charles Wheatstone and meaning ‘I see solid’) was shown to the public in 1838, before photography was invented. It used mirrors and was hardly portable but was meant originally as a way to demonstrate how binocular vision worked. It never really had any commercial success. Sir David Brewster replaced the mirrors by prisms and created what is now referred to as Brewster-type stereoscopes. They were no bigger than a pair of binoculars and allowed the two halves of the binocular picture to be mounted side by side.

It is possible to view stereo cards or stereo slides without a stereoscope (it is called free-viewing) but it requires some practice and few people can actually do it. Every stereoscopic device works the same way, by allowing each eye to see only one picture. The left eye only sees the left hand picture and the right eye the right hand one. This can be done by means of mirrors (reflecting stereoscope), prisms or lenses (refracting stereoscope) coloured filters (anaglyphs) polarised filters or revolving shutters (active glasses).

How prevalent were stereoscopes in the second half of the nineteenth-century?

The impact of the stereoscope in the second half of the nineteenth-century (it was made commercially available at the time of the 1851 Great Exhibition) has often been likened to that of the television in the 1960s. It provided entertainment and education and was present in most middle class drawing rooms or parlours. The price of the stereoscope and of the cards was too high for most working class families but they still could see stereoscopic cards in fairs, exhibitions and bazaars.

How frequently is the motif of the fallen woman depicted in stereoscopes?

The motif of the ‘fallen woman’ is not actually very common in stereo cards. It was a subject that was deemed a little improper as it might give the wrong sort of ideas to young women. One must not forget that stereo cards were usually left lying on the parlour table for the family or visitors to look at and that the issue of the fallen woman was quite a sensitive one.

What other themes and scenes do they tend to depict?

There are hundreds of thousands topographical views for the stereoscope which allowed the Victorians to travel to faraway countries without leaving their firesides but there are also a huge number of genre or sentimental scenes. Most of these celebrate middle class values, such as family and religion, but oddly enough quite a large number deal with the problem of servants. Most cards were standalones, but from a very early stage there were stories told in two or three pictures, rarely more. It was later in the century that stories in six or 12 cards started to appear. These were mostly sentimental or comical.

What can you tell us about the photographers who created stereoscopic cards? Were there famous names of the day?

Nearly all of the famous photographers of the time did stereos at some point in their career, be it portraits, still life or even genre scenes. Some, like James Elliott or Alfred Silvester, to name but two, specialised in genre views and their new creations were usually advertised in the press, usually in The Times. The first golden age of stereo photography was short-lived however (roughly 1856 to 1862) and by the time of the second international exhibition most of the pioneers of the stereoscope had either stopped being photographers (Silvester became a magician) or had stopped making stereos, in order to specialise in portraits or topographical photographs. Birmingham photographer Michael Burr was one of the few artists left who specialised in genre views but unlike his predecessors he hardly ever advertised in the press, though he copyrighted most of his production.

When and why did stereoscopes fall out of fashion?

The history of stereoscopy has been a succession of ups and down, a regular rollercoaster ride, from the very start to the present day. The first golden age of stereo photography ended after the 1862 exhibition, mostly on account of the advent of the carte-de-visite, a type of small photograph. The second golden age took place at the end of the century and most views at the time came from the United States. Cinema killed the interest in stereo photography, which was shortly revived after the First World War (there are thousands of stereos depicting the war). When 3D movies replaced stereo cards, the same story of ups and down continued; there were periods of deep interest followed by long periods of nearly total oblivion.

Other than in The Fallen Woman exhibition, where can the general public see stereoscopes and learn more about them?

There was an exhibition at Tate Britain for nearly a year in which some stereoscopic cabinets were at the disposal of the visitors. There are lots of stereo cards and stereoscopes exhibited at the Edinburgh National Museum of Scotland. Stereocards and a stereoscope will also be visible next year at the V&A, at an exhibition entitled Undressed, opening in April of next year. It is the aim of the London Stereoscopic Company to try and encourage such initiatives. Dr May lends originals from his collection and we offer our expertise to set up 3D slide shows or design ways of displaying stereo originals or copies, so that as large a number of people as possible can discover his collection. It’s a real treasure trove, holding millions of 3D images that very few people know about.

The Fallen Woman runs at the Foundling Museum until Sunday 3 January 2016.