Instead of focusing on a specific medium, this week’s Inspiring Illustrations post on photography is devoted to a well-known presentation format, the stereograph. More recently identified as 3D photography (particularly fashionable in contemporary cinema), this format’s history is well known, but one worth sharing with new readers. Most importantly to us, the University of St Andrews is directly linked to the invention of the ‘lenticular stereograph’.
David Brewster (1781-1868), Principal of United Colleges of St. Andrews, commissioned Dr John Adamson (above, first Scottish photographer to execute the Calotype) to make his ideas about stereoscopic photography a reality. In doing so, a 19th century phenomenon was born which became a fashionable parlour amusement for those who could afford it. Dr Alison Morrison-Low of the National Museums of Scotland writes in our recent Treasures of St Andrews University Library publication: “it’s popularity led to the mass commercialisation and dissemination of imagery in this unique photographic format throughout the world.”
The principal of recreating the sense of depth in a photograph is a straight forward one. If a human being has two eyes that are a fixed distance apart, they each have a slightly different perspective which allows the brain to combine the images and perceive depth. To recreate this in photography naturally requires the same approach of two images taken a slight distance apart similar to that of human eyes. Next however, one needs a device to make the illusion complete; a stereo card viewer or more aptly a ‘stereoscope’. This device visually split and focused the two images in a manner which allowed the viewer to trick their brain into believing they were looking at a single image some distance away.
The application of the stereograph leaned largely towards the production and visual enjoyment of views of distant places which would feed the curiosity of the armchair traveler, such as those views produced by Francis Frith illustrating Egypt, Nubia, and Ethiopia with the evocative and now nostalgic tones of the albumen print. The format also had interesting applications in the sciences as well as erotic imagery. Within our collection are several photographic books featuring anatomical images allowing the three dimensional study of cross sections of the ear, as well as the human eye.
Modern day interpretations of this technology continue to be developed and remain a fascination for both young and old. A personal favourite from my own childhood was the View-Master!
P.S:.Other examples of sterographic works in our collections are featured in our Photographic Books collection. Follow this link to see five publications of how the process was applied in the name of science (Brewster being a scientist would have been pleased!).