Discovering the dawn of 3D photography

Those who think 3D imaging is a post-digital innovation should think again, say Denis Pellerin and Brian May, authors of A New History of Stereoscopic Photography.

The problem with stereoscopic photography is that it’s just not taken seriously enough. This is the view of two of the world’s leading experts on the subject who, sensing an injustice of immeasurable magnitude, have teamed up to produce the first comprehensive history of the first decades of the phenomenon. The combined work of French photo historian Denis Pellerin and Brian May, owner of London Stereoscopic Company fine art publishing house, “Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D” is gloriously unconventional – almost as much as the figures who forged stereoscopic technology in the furnaces of the industrial revolution.

Unconventional as few books these days come with an accompanying optical instrument. There’s a good reason to have one here because, no matter how compelling the story (especially that of 19th century innovator Charles Wheatstone), and no matter how well the documentary research academically sound is undoubtedly absorbing, more than anything, readers will want to look at the pictures. They don’t want to wonder what those 19th century stereo images would have looked like at the time. They want to see them for themselves in 3D. Help is at hand in the form of “The Owl”, designed by May himself.

May says the reason for writing a history of the early decades of stereoscopy is simply that “it’s so overlooked. It’s such a vivid and informative type of photography that it’s actually a crime that people don’t use it all the time. While 2D representation “goes back to cavemen doodling on walls and making beautiful pictures of the animals around them,” 3D is by comparison a recent phenomenon. Old-school ‘flat’ imagery remained unchanged for millennia, says May, ‘until Wheatstone came along and in 1832 had this idea that no one up to that time had had. It still boggles my mind. You would have thought that Leonardo da Vinci would have understood why we have two eyes.

Image credit: London Stereoscopic Company

It was left to Wheatstone, a “timid, almost inarticulate genius”, to figure out stereo vision. The arrangement of our eyes means that we observe the world from two slightly different positions, which are then combined in the human brain to produce depth perception. “Our brain is constantly processing these small differences.”

Wheatstone’s early observations, Pellerin says, are literally the first steps in the evolution to the kind of 21st century 3D digital imaging found in medical equipment, VR headsets and product design software. “It was a revelation for the scientific community at the time. Remember, in the 1830s, there wasn’t even flat photography,” which meant that Wheatstone had to hand-draw his demo image pairs. In 1840, Wheatstone invited photography pioneer Henry Fox Talbot “to take the very first stereo photographs. No one had done this before and so they ended up with exaggerated angles. Gradually, the scientific community has figured out how to create pairwise images that can be combined correctly using optical instruments. “We could now see images of the world in 3D. For the public, it was fabulous: the first photos they saw were those of the exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851. It was a magical experience,” says Pellerin.

We read it for you

“Stereoscopy: the dawn of 3D”

Photography is often described as an art based on science, and for the authors of “Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D”, it was a crucial subset of the discipline that in the 19th century started the way scalable to the 3D digital imaging that we have today.

In their compelling account of the early decades of technology, Denis Pellerin and Brian May capture the moment when stereoscopy became one of the great entertainments of the time, only to then spend much of the 20th century languishing in the shadows. of “flat” photography. The birth of stereography is shrouded in controversy, and authors are making extraordinary efforts to set the record straight, and above all to highlight the role played by a British inventor, the largely forgotten genius Charles Wheatstone.

“Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D” is intended to become the benchmark against which all future evaluations of the technology will be measured.

While Wheatstone may well have been the most important figure in the birth of 3D photography, his importance has been overshadowed by the contributions of other scientists, notably Sir David Brewster (whose work on the polarization of light is recalled in its eponymous angle of incidence). Brewster was just one of many figures who seem to have pushed Wheatstone (the undoubtedly eccentric but good old-fashioned Victorian genius) into the margins. May says there are many such controversies and injustices in the early history of stereoscopy. Part of the reason for partnering with Pellerin on the project – Pellerin is the author and May is the book’s editor – was to restore reputations, dispel myths and unearth stories “that will shock at least one part of the established photographic community”.

Today, it’s easy to think of stereoscopic photography as the obscure and underappreciated poor cousin of conventional “flat” photography (both authors tend to use the adjective with the most slightly disapproving tone). But this is only one of these inaccuracies that the book sets out to demystify. “Both types of photography started around the same time,” says May. “Stereoscopy was huge back then. In fact, stereo photography took the lead for the common public.

Isambard Kingdon Brunel Stereo

Image credit: London Stereoscopic Company

The original London Stereoscopic Company – which May brought back to life “under new management” in 2006 – “had a million stereo card views for sale. It was a big deal. Which brings us to the question: what went wrong? The French photo-historian answers it in three words: “visiting card”. The CdV, as it was called, was essentially a photographic calling card that became very popular in the mid-1850s, which was exchanged between friends. CDV albums were a staple of the Victorian living room: “It was like the selfie today,” says Pellerin sadly.

May explains: “The Victorians were a bit like us. They would go pell-mell in a craze, then it would be over, and they would move on. There’s a sense in which it gave stereography a bad name, like it’s a toy or something. Still in the history of photography, stereography is set aside and treated as something new. But in fact, it is a visual revolution. Commenting on its relevance today, May states that “stereography has not yet had its day. People just didn’t realize its power.

To support this point, May reflects on her current work in space exploration. “Most NASA teams that send missions to solar system objects are now stereoscopically Victorian-style. I had the chance to participate in the New Horizons program where I made the first stereoscopic photo of Pluto. It is one of the most memorable moments of my life. »

‘Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D’ by Denis Pellerin and Brian May, is from the London Stereoscopic Company, £60


windows to the world

There is no doubt that the stereoscope started a visual revolution that was as important in opening up the world to the Victorians as the invention of perspective was in allowing artists to give a more accurate representation of a 3D world. on a flat surface.

Before this avalanche of affordable stereoscopic slides, most people knew the world only through travellers’ tales and the imperfect woodcuts of the illustrated magazines of the time. Suddenly, they had an instrument at their disposal that placed them right in the middle of the scenes before their eyes. This allowed them to see the monument, statue, landscape, palace or living room they were looking at exactly as it appeared to the photographer, and in its true depth and solidity.

Obviously, they couldn’t go around the statue or the monument, open the door they saw, touch the objects they had in front of them. But it was a million times better than a woodcut, etching, or even a painting. It was like looking with both eyes through a window in a wall. You couldn’t turn your head and you couldn’t reach anything. But you could see what was in the frame in front of your eyes, with everything in it life-size. It must have been a real shock at first – a feeling that we can’t fully appreciate today because we’ve been saturated with images since birth – and it generated a desire for more places to visit. The key to the continued success of the stereoscope lies in the ability of publishers to provide more and better images. Marc-Antoine Gaudin wrote that “the enthusiasm for this wonderful instrument will never stop provided that the curiosity of the public is constantly nourished, because it is naturally always in search of novelty”.

Edited excerpt from ‘Stereoscopy: The Dawn of 3-D’ by Denis Pellerin and Brian May, with permission

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