3-D Found in the Archives!Posted: March 5, 2014
While doing an inventory of the Photographic Archives storage area, we came across a surprising collection of glass stereo slides with a small box viewer depicting vivid scenes from World War I. I am well acquainted with paper card stereographs and often present them to student groups visiting the archive, asking if they ever imagined that 3-D technology was around over 150 years ago. But I had never before seen glass stereo photographs. The clarity in these three-dimensional images on glass is far beyond that of common paper-mounted card stereographs, so why do they seem so rare?
Stereography, early three-dimensional photography, was immensely popular in the latter half of the nineteenth century having been introduced in the 1850s and lasting into the 1930s. Stereograph photos, also known as stereoviews, stereograms, and stereopticons, were created with special cameras that had two lenses placed approximately two inches apart (the general distance between human eyes). These stereo cameras shot two nearly identical images on one negative that when printed and viewed through a stereoscope appear three dimensional.
Stereography was a common form of entertainment and news in the nineteenth century, with handheld viewers and stereograph sets found in most family parlors much like radios and televisions were in the twentieth century. Sets of stereographs showing far-away places in Europe, Asia and Africa were mass produced, as were sets depicting events like the Civil War and natural disasters such as the Louisville Tornado of 1890 and San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Being so affordable and accessible, stereography made foreign views and newsworthy imagery accessible to people of all classes.
The collection of glass stereoviews that we found in the archives consists of the wood box stereo viewer, approximately 100 glass slides each hand-labeled in French, and came with no information other than the name of the donor, Jon Kugelman, who gifted the items to the Photographic Archives in 1964. With some quick web research I have already run across a number of the same images that are in our collection. The photographs were likely shot by French photographer and stereographic inventor Jules Richard, and probably mass-produced and sold in the States by Brentano’s, a Parisian bookstore. It seems that glass stereographs were more popular in Europe than in the United States, which is why they are a bit rarer than paper mounted stereoviews.
The images in this collection show the realities of the Great War, including soldiers amid trenches, battlefield corpses, and bombed-out buildings. With the added feature of spatial relation, as well as the enhanced detail and light of the images on glass, these photographs vividly translate the destruction and horrors of war like I have never seen before.
Though best viewed through a stereoscope viewer, some animated gifs of stereographs can be found online and help convey the three-dimensionality of the photographs, like this image from a collection very similar to the Kugelman Collection in our archive.