Planes, Trains & Stereographs

Photographs connect us to the past, to a moment or people that are lost to us. They can be personal - an image of a much-loved friend, lover, family member; or communal - teaching us about a past that we did not experience but, because of the photograph, know existed.

Either way there is a distance between us and the photograph. A distance in time that is mirrored by the physical distance between us and the paper object that we hold in our hands. We can feel the texture of the paper, trace the contours of a face with a finger, but we can never be part of the moment.

The mirror stereoscope invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone

Invented in 1838, the auspicious year that also saw photography announced to the world, stereoscopy looks to bring us that bit closer to the image. The first stereoscopic device, invented by Sir Charles Wheatstone, utilised drawings to create the illusion of a 3D image, but it was not long before stereoscopy and photography found each other. The intervention of Sir David Brewster in 1844 improved the technology and helped create something of a craze for Victorians. At the height of this craze most homes possessed a stereoscope. And it is easy to see why this relatively simple technology should catch on. 

Stereoscopy uses two lenses, one for each eye, and two photographs of the same scene, taken roughly 7cm apart (the approximate distance between the human eyes). The image (the stereograph) when viewed through the lenses of the device (the stereoscope) presents the viewer with a 3D scene. Coming so soon after the invention of photography, the immediacy of these images must have seemed miraculous for the Victorian audience. 

Advances in the design of stereoscopes served to further popularise their use. For instance, the Holmes viewer (more on which in a moment) came to dominate the stereoscope market due to its ease of use and the fact that it could be used in natural light. Indeed, stereoscopes were so popular that an industry sprang up to supply the demand for more stereoscopic scenes. Scottish photographer George Washington Wilson was a leader in this field; his studio was producing stereographs on an industrial scale.

The Brewster Stereoscope
George Washington Wilson, Dumbarton Rock and Castle

Although the popularity of the stereoscope has waned, the technology itself has been persistent, popping up in various forms over the last 180 years. That initial surge of popularity and the industry that supported it meant that many photography collections, the National Galleries of Scotland included, have amassed a substantial number of stereographs.

George Barker Samuel John Dixon Crossing Niagara Falls Below the Great Cantilever Bridge 1895
Excelsior Stereoscopic Tours Princes Street, Edinburgh Possibly 1897

So it was that when photography curator Louise Pearson was selecting works for an exhibition of transport photographs from the national collection, she began to notice the theme of the show depicted in the stereographs in the collection. And there were lots of them. So many in fact that she conceived of an entire wall of stereographs.

The stereograph wall in Planes, Trains and Automobiles

As impressive as this display is, beautifully mirroring the grid arrangement of the Dieter Applet work on the adjacent wall, this kind of display does not allow visitors to experience the stereographs in their full 3D glory. It was obvious that we needed a device to enable visitors to enjoy the stereographs as intended.

Exhibition designer, Cavan Convery, provided one solution by including a Holmes viewer in the display along with a small stock of replica stereograph cards. This has already proven very popular with visitors, many of whom are unaware that this technology existed at such an early stage in the development of photography. However, this approach has its limitations. With it we could only really demonstrate a handful of the 111 stereographs on display in the gallery. So we began to look for a digital solution.

The Holmes viewer for visitors to use in the gallery

We had explored the relationship between the stereoscope and subsequent inventions such as the ViewMaster and, more recently, Google Cardboard in a previous blog. So for Planes, Trains and Automobiles we returned to the idea of using Google Cardboard to allow visitors to experience all of the stereographs on the wall in 3D. Google Cardboard, as the name suggests, is a cheap cardboard device that uses the same principles as the stereoscope: two lenses and two images each positioned to match the distance between the eyes. The difference being that with Google Cardboard the images are presented on the screen of a mobile phone rather than on individual cards. This gave us the option of adding interactivity: instead of looking at just one image, we could present all the images on the wall in one device.

The ViewMaster for Google Cardboard. A 21st century device, designed to mimic the 20th century ViewMaster and used in Planes, Trains and Automobiles to display 19th century photographs.

To achieve this we turned to David Quaid, a developer based in New York, who already had some experience with Google Cardboard. We first encountered David’s work in the Stereogram app that he built for Android, which enabled users with a Google Cardboard device to view thousands of historical stereograms. For this exhibition, David kindly made a bespoke version of the app for use in the gallery. 

The Stereogram app in action

Once we had imported the images into the app, we were able to view them with fresh eyes. Viewing historical stereoscopic images feels like time travel and looking at these images in the viewer was like seeing them properly for the first time. Suddenly we were in the belly of a U-Boat, on the deck of a steamer chugging across Lake Ontario or surveying the wreck of a downed German zeppelin in the First World War. There is a poignancy, an immediacy, that comes from viewing stereoscopic images from the past that you just do not get when looking at the 2D prints on the wall, and we were delighted to be able to help bring these images to life in the gallery.

Realistic Travels - Publishers Interior of Forward Compartment of U-Boat 135, Showing Torpedo and Four Torpedo Tubes About 1914 - 1916
Realistic Travels - Publishers The Wrecked Zeppelin Brought Down by our Aviators near the Coast of Essex About 1914 - 1916

We did not want to stop there, however. Given the popularity that stereoscopy once enjoyed (remember that most Victorian households had at one time possessed a stereoscope) we wanted anyone to be able to enjoy the collection, not just the visitors to the exhibition. Happily, that ambition was also shared by David who, in addition to the app, has also created stereogalleries.com. On this website anyone with a Google Cardboard device can enjoy a selection of historical collections in the comfort of their own home. We have included two collections, one that includes all the transport stereographs in the Planes, Trains and Automobiles exhibition and another containing some of the other highlights from the collection

If you fancy trying your hand at stereoscopy, you can create a gallery of your own images and enjoy them on stereogalleries.com. All you need is Google Cardboard and a (free) Flickr account. Making stereo images is easy and thankfully there is advice on how to create them from celebrity stereoscopy fan and Queen guitarist Brian May. If your interest in stereoscopy has been piqued, then you can join us in St Andrews for a conference on Stereo Photography on 18-19 October 2018 (in conjunction with the St Andrews Photography Festival 2018). Failing that there is still plenty of time to catch Planes, Trains and Automobiles at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

By Phil Hunt, 28 September 2018