Aesthetics of Stereo Photography
The most fascinating and compelling aspect of stereographic photography is that its newness as an art form presents exciting opportunities to see images in a new way. Real life, after all, is simple, merely ordinary to the eye. In real life, we choose to focus on particular elements of the visual world at given moments - this chair, that wall, the nearest cup of coffee - in order to create depth and dimensionality and successfully make sense of the space around us. Meanwhile, we see two-dimensional images represented in traditional photography so constantly that they, too, are natural to our eyes. The sense of the roundness, weight, angularity or movement of an object in a two-dimensional photograph is signaled through predictable visual cues, and our relationship to the image is mediated by the aesthetic choices of the photographer and the conventions of the medium. In a traditional mono photograph, for example, we do not question where the photographer tells us to look: look here, the photographer says, and we look.
In contrast, the viewer of a stereographic photograph falls into a new visual space somewhere between the conventions of traditional monographic photography and the equally complacent, comfortable three-dimensional world we live in. The stereographic photograph forces the viewer to enter into a relationship with the objects, landscapes, and figures represented within the image, to move into the image and decide where to look on their own. It revels in complexity and invites multiple viewings and interpretations. In essence, the stereographic photo creates an interactive experience with the viewer and has the potential to disrupt and reconfigure the ordinary relationship between viewer and image, challenging the viewer to perceive the image in new, complex, and sometimes startling ways.
History of Stereo Photography
Stereo photography was invented only a year after the first photograph was made. It was considered incredible that two similar, but slightly different images could signal to the brain one scene. In 1859, celebrated stereo photographer Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in the Atlantic Monthly:
"Though, as we have seen two eyes look on two different pictures, we perceive but one picture. The two have run together and become blended into a third, which shows us everything we see in each other."
In these early years, stereo photographs were made on a variety of media including tintypes, daguerreotypes and wet plates. Stereo photography was extremely popular in France around the turn of the 20th century. The Richards Company manufactured both glass plate cameras and sophisticated viewers that wealthy individuals often used to photograph family portraits and travel.
In America, stereo photographs of exotic travel locales were sold as mass produced stereo cards with wooden hand viewers. The 1950's brought about another resurgence in stereo photography with the invention of Viewmaster viewers and round reels as well as small 35mm stereo cameras used to shot Kodachrome stereo slides. At the turn of the 21st century, there are perhaps only two-dozen stereo photographers who create fine art photography.