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Seeing Double: The Art of the Stereoview
in Nineteenth Century America

April 5 - April 30, 2008

Through the lenses of the family stereoscope, the solemnity of the plush-cushioned parlors of the nineteenth century dissolved into astonishing new worlds: suddenly one found oneself staring up at the solemn head of the Sphinx in Egypt, or out from the tallest peaks of the Rockies. A moment later one could be enraptured by the alluring charm of a Broadway starlet, or else be overwhelmed by the devastation of the Johnstown Flood or astounded at the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake-all experienced in the illusion of three-dimensional space from the comfort of an armchair.

Seeing Double: The Art of the Stereoview in Nineteenth-Century America brings together some one hundred original stereoscopic photographs (also called stereographs) from private collections that reflect the wide range of subject matter and themes expressed by this popular medium. Among these subjects are many which parallel those of nineteenth-century painting and sculpture: portraiture; landscape; still life; genre scenes; and historical events. Similarly, one discovers in these images a number of themes that characterize the other visual arts in America during this period, including neoclassicism, romanticism, the sublime, the New Woman, the mythologizing of the American West, spiritualism, and a fascination for the exotic.

The origins of stereo photography stem from empirical studies on the nature of binocular vision. British scientist Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) published the announcement of his stereoscope in 1838, which-as it slightly predated the invention of the daguerreotype-employed two drawings and mirrors to create the illusion of depth (hence it was called the reflecting stereoscope); with this device Wheatstone proved (as had been suggested by the ancient Greek mathematicians Euclid and Galen, and later by Leonardo da Vinci and others) that our perception of solidity and depth is a result of the mind combining the two slightly-different images viewed by the left and right eyes. Soon thereafter Wheatstone approached the maverick photographer Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) to create photographic stereoview images. Doing so necessitated the taking of two separate photographs two and one-half inches apart, which approximated the distance between the eyes.

Lacking a practical method of viewing these stereo images, however, interest in stereoscopy was relegated largely to optical scientists for nearly a decade. In the 1840s Wheatstone's invention was improved by Sir David Brewster's (1781-1868) handheld lenticular or refracting stereoscope, consisting of two lenses set within a pyramidal wooden box in which light could enter from one side to allow better viewing of the magnified images; he would also be the first to construct a stereoscopic camera consisting of two lenses. Brewster provided a model of his stereoscope to the French scientific instrument maker Jules Duboscq (1817-1886), who crafted for him an optically-improved version that was exhibited at the Crystal Palace exhibition (1851) in London; among those astounded by this incredible invention was Queen Victoria, whose enthusiasm for the stereoscope did much to promote its rapid rise in popularity. European stereoscopes and views were soon imported and sold in the United States (the first American stereoviews were created in 1854 by the Langenheim Brothers of Philadelphia), although the "Brewster-style" stereoscope was relatively expensive and as such was attainable only by those of substantial means.

This would change with the creation in 1861 of the "Holmes-Bates style" stereoscope designed by the American physician (and father of the famous Supreme Court Justice) Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1904). Perhaps the nineteenth-century's most enthusiastic champion of stereoscopy, Holmes collaborated with stereoscope seller Joseph L. Bates (1807-1886) to create a low-cost, handheld viewer with the ubiquitous wooden or metal hood and sliding focusing bar with wire holders to vertically support the stereoview in front of the lenses. The improved stereoscope essentially revolutionized the artform, fostering a more democratic, popular medium. Stereoscopic photography blossomed, with photographers such as Charles Bierstadt, Napoleon Sarony, Carleton Watkins and numerous others offering stereoview images that went beyond visual documentation. Inevitably, however, as the number of producers and sellers increased, the quality of the photography was unpredictable and the subjects chosen became geared to a mass audience rather than to the stereoscopic connoisseur. Piracy became rampant, as unscrupulous companies would photograph stereoview cards-cropping out the name of the original publisher, and occasionally much of the original image-and resell them under their own label.

Although stereographs wavered somewhat in popularity during the 1880s, a resurgence occurred around 1890 when Underwood & Underwood and other stereoview companies began employing college students to sell stereoscopes and views door-to-door. This turned out to be a textbook example of brilliant marketing: initially the customer would be sold a stereoscope and a few sample views; afterwards salesmen would make follow-up visits to offer additional views, including box sets and-for the hardcore collectors-expandable wooden cabinets to house them. These large-scale operations-primarily Underwood & Underwood and the Keystone View Company-would eventually eclipse (and often buy out the negatives and remaining stock of) the small, independent photographers who had been pioneers in the field.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Underwood and Underwood and Keystone View Company entered the educational field, selling stereoscopes and box sets of geographical and cultural views to schools to enhance classroom pedagogy; these sets were often accompanied by texts and maps-offering what at the time was a veritable multimedia experience. Sir David Brewster himself had anticipated such an application, having acknowledged in 1857 that while the stereoscope was "known principally as an instrument of amusement, the time is not distant when it will be regarded as an indispensable auxiliary in the education of the people." Although the popularity of stereoview cards ended with the Great Depression of the 1930s, stereo photography was soon revived by the advent of the View-Master, invented by William Gruber and unveiled at the 1939 World's Fair in New York. There remains however a considerable and diehard constituency of stereoview collectors and stereo photographers around the world.

The majority of the stereoviews in this exhibition were chosen for those qualities which transcend mere photographic documentation, and instead address more aesthetic concerns such as composition, mood, and an appreciation of the possibilities inherent to the nature of the double image. In addition to those photographers known for their stereoscopic images, such as Charles Bierstadt (1819-1903), George Barker (1844-1894), Henry Hamilton Bennett (1843-1908), and brothers Edward (1819-1888) and Henry T. Anthony (1814-1884), there are a number of other notable pioneers of photography in this exhibition: Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896); Carleton Watkins (1829-1916); Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904); Timothy H. O'Sullivan (c.1840-1882); and William Henry Jackson (1843-1942). Yet some of the most poignant images in this exhibition are those made by unknown, amateur photographers who experimented with the dual-lens camera. These remarkable photographs, just a handful of the nearly five million different stereoviews estimated to have been created during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are in many ways the closest we can hope to come to seeing the three-dimensional world as experienced by our ancestors.


Brian E. Hack,
, Ph.D.

 

Exhibition checklist

Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896) ... image
Dora Goldthwaite

Davis Bros (Portsmouth, NH) ... image
View from Appledore House, Appledore Island, Isles of Shoals 1860s-1870s

William (1807-1874) and Frederick Langenheim (1809-1879)
Niagara-Terrapin Tower, from Goat Island c.1858

Charles Bierstadt (1819-1903)
Feet of Ferry Stairs, Winter, Niagara, NY 1860s

George Barker (1844-1894)
Prospect Point-Niagara c. 1881

John P. Soule (active 1860-1875)
Suspension Bridge, the Interior, Niagara Falls c. 1860s

George Barker (1844-1894)
Prospect Point-Niagara, on line of N.Y.C. & H.R.R.R. c. 1860s

George E. Curtis (1830-1910)
Ice Bridge-Moonlight c. 1870s

S. J. Mason
Group Portrait at Niagara Falls 1865-1875

George Barker (1844-1894)
Bridge to 1st Sister Island-Niagara on Line of N.Y.C. & H.R.R.R.

Unknown Photographer, Union View Company
Artist at easel, Watkins Glen, NY c. late1860s

Charles Bierstadt (1819-1903)
Looking Down Glen Cathedral, Watkins Glen, NY 1860s

Unknown Photographer
New York State Scenery, Watkins and Seneca Lake: Watkins Glen Mountain House c. late 1860s

R.D. Crum
Long Stairs, Watkins Glen c. 1868

R.D. Crum
Through the Spray, Watkins Glen c. 1868

John Loeffler (Staten Island, NY)
Catskill Mountain Scenery: Kauterskill Falls 1850s

Edward (1819-1888) and H.T. Anthony (1814-1884)
The Lower Kauterskill Fall-80 Feet High 1860s

Edward (1819-1888) and H.T. Anthony (1814-1884)
Winter in the Catskills: Sunset Rock Overhanging Kauterskill Clove 1870s

Henry Hamilton Bennett (1843-1908)
In and About the Dells of the Wisconsin River: Looking Out of Boat Cave c.1868-1870s

Henry Hamilton Bennett (1843-1908)
In and About the Dells of the Wisconsin River: Landed and Looking for a Camp c. 1868-1870s

U.S. Stereoscopic Company (Boston, MA)
Monadnock Scenery, New Hampshire: The Pool 1860s-1870s

Strohmeyer & Wyman/Underwood & Underwood
Confederate Signal Station, Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga, Tennessee 1895

Keystone View Company
Leaping the Chasm to Stand Rock, Sculptured by Prehistoric Streams, The Dells, Wisconsin

John P. Soule (active 1860-1875)
White Mountain Scenery: Interior of Snow Arch, Tuckerman's Ravine 1861

Kilburn Brothers (Benjamin West Kilburn, 1827-1909, and Edward Kilburn, 1830-1884) The Babbling Brook c.1868

Bartlett & French (Philadelphia, PA)
County Bridge, Valley Green 1850s-1860s

William (1807-1874) and Frederick Langenheim (1809-1879)
Central Park, New York c.1858-1860

Unknown Photographer
The Home Series, American Illustrated: The Vine Clad Arbor, Central Park 1870s

George Barker (1844-1894)
The Johnstown Flood: Wreck of the Day Express 1889

George Barker (1844-1894)
The Johnstown Flood: General View of the Wrecked City 1889

Jeremiah Gurney (1812-1886) & Son
Unknown Burlesque Star 1860s-1870s

Unknown photographer
Johnny Roach as Drunkard 1870s-1880s

Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896)
Millie Cooke

Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896)
Unidentified Performer

Jeremiah Gurney (1812-1886) & Son
Jennie Cleaver 1860s-1870s

Jeremiah Gurney (1812-1886) & Son
Pauline Markham c.1868-70

Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896)
Aimée 1870s

Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896)
Amy Roselle c.1871

Keystone View Company
Her Guardian Angel 1898

William H. Rau (1855-1920)
Every Kiss Has Its Sting c.1900

James M. Davis
Come, Josiah, Let's Get Out of Here 1898

Keystone View Company
Robbing the "Mail" 1898

F.G. Weller
The Artist's Dream 1875

H.C. White, Publishers
A Straight Flush and Cards to Spare 1901

Keystone View Company
Demonstration of the Stereoscopic Principle: Man Reading Stereographic Magazine Original circa 1902; this print after 1920

William H. Rau (1855-1920)
An Optical Delusion 1880s-90s

Keystone View Company
Marie and Gregory, two Breton Children in France who live near the Castle Josselin c.1902

Unknown Photographer
Still-Life (Wedding Gifts?) c.1879-1880s

C.H. Graves, Universal Photo Art Company
Still-Life Study 1900

I.L. Rogers
Skeleton Leaves: Charlie Ross the Stolen Child c.1877

John P. Soule (active 1860-1875)
Skeleton Leaves: Charles Sumner 1874

G.D. Wakely
Policeman Posing with the Equestrian Monument of Andrew Jackson, Washington, D.C. 1866

Longworth Powers (1835-1904)
The Greek Slave 1870s

Unknown Photographer
The Dreaming Iolanthe: A Study in Butter Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, PA 1876

C.H. Graves, Universal Photo Art Company
Interior of Muckross Abbey, County Kerry, Ireland c.1890s

Unknown Photographer (most likely George K. Lewis, for the Keystone View Company)
Looking Up an Angle of the Great Pyramid, Showing the Difficulties of its Ascent, Egypt Early 1930s

C.H. Graves
Ivory and Wood is Beautifully Turned on Crude Lathes, Egypt 1904

George K. Lewis (1902-1975), with Assistant
Photographer Lewis Himself Caught by Camera of Assistant Early 1930s

Keystone View Company
Panama Hats are Woven in the Cool of the Morning n.d

Keystone View Company
Swahili Girls dressing their hair, Zanzibar, East Africa n.d.

C.H. Graves
Worshipping at the Shrine of Diabutsu [sic], Japan 1902

Underwood & Underwood
Ruins of Ancient Tyre-wonderful fulfillment of Prophecy, Syria 1900

Underwood & Underwood
Unclean! Unclean! Wretched lepers outside Jerusalem 1896

Edward (1819-1888) and H.T. Anthony (1814-1884)
The Old Veteran 1870s

Edward (1819-1888) and H.T. Anthony (1814-1884)
Mirror Lake, From the Trail 1870s

Carleton Watkins (1829-1916)
View Up the Valley, from the Coulterville Trail 1860s

Carleton Watkins (1829-1916)
The Sentinel, 3270 feet, Yosemite Valley 1867

I.W. Taber (from negative by Carleton Watkins)
Sea Lions, West End, Farrallone Islands c. 1875

Timothy H. O'Sullivan (c. 1840-1882)
View Down Black Canon, from Mirror Bar, Wheeler Expedition, 1871

R.Y. Young, American Stereoscopic Company
Climbing the dangerous trail to Glacier Point, Yosemite Falls, Cal. U.S.A. 1890s

William Henry Jackson (1843-1942)
Rocky Mountain Scenery: Williams Cañon 1880s

William Henry Jackson (1843-1942)
Native American Child on Cradleboard 1880s

Unknown photographer
Unidentified Men, Possibly Miners 1862-64

Keystone View Company
Thomas Moran, Celebrated Artist, Sketching near Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon National Park c. 1920 print of original from 1908

Keystone View Company
Cowboy, broncho Corral and Camps, Banks of the Yellowstone, Montana c. 1900

L.J. Schira, Successor to Griffith & Griffith
One of Nature's Wonders, Mariposa Grove, California

George W. Griffith (Philadelphia)
Yosemite Falls (2600 ft.) from overhanging rock, Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California

Keystone View Company
Avalanche Basin and its Wall of Rugged Cliffs Seen from South, Glacier National Park, Montana

Eadweard Muybridge (born Edward James Muggeridge, 1830-1904)
Palisade, on the Humboldt River, looking East Published by Bradley & Rulofson, c.1874-75

Thomas Houseworth (1828-1915) & Company
The Top of the Vernal Fall, Yo-Semite Valley, near view-Mariposa County c.1866

Charles Bierstadt (1819-1903)
The Fallen Monarch, Mariposa Grove, California 1870s

Charles Bierstadt (1813-1903)
El Capitan from Colfax Point, Yo-Semite Valley California 1870s

Unknown photographer
Burlesque Model c. 1920s

Underwood & Underwood
"Oh sweetest rose, thou dost disclose, a loveliness divine"
Hand colored Stereograph 1900

Unknown Photographer
Burlesque Star with Giant Pocket Watch 1920

Unknown Photographer
Burlesque Star with Giant Pocket Watch 1920

Unknown Amateur Photographer
Three Automobile Reflections/Abstractions 1920s

Unknown Amateur Photographer
Amen (Grave at 95th and Irving Avenue, Hammond, Indiana) c. 1920s

Unknown Amateur Photographer
Motorbike Wheel c. 1915-1930

 


 

 

 

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