Spectacles for Viewing Spectacles: Stereoscopy in The View from Here

Spectacle and immersion have always played a major role in visual representation. Louis Daguerre, in addition to inventing the daguerreotype, worked as an artist creating immersive dioramas. The desire to immerse the viewer in imagery has been a constant throughout the history of mechanical reproduction. Cinema has consistently fought the threat of competing media with the promise of more immersive spectacular experiences from cinemascope to 3D IMAX. While in the digital field the last few years have seen a significant rise in the popularity of virtual reality headsets such as Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, Sony PlayStation VR and, at the budget end of the spectrum, Google Cardboard.

Stereoscopic viewers for use in The View from Here

One of photography’s earliest attempts to put the viewer at the centre of an immersive 3D experience can be seen in The View From Here the fantastic overview of landscape photography currently approaching the end of its run at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. In the first room of the exhibition visitors are given the opportunity to try on a selection of stereoscopic viewers in order to enjoy a 3D experience, nineteenth century style.

Stereoscopy exploits human binocular vision by presenting two almost identical images, one for each eye. When seen through a viewer these two images are reconciled to create one image with the illusion of three dimensions.

George Washington Wilson, Fall at Inversnaid, Loch Lomond, About 1858

These viewers became immensely popular in the nineteenth century largely thanks to the Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster. Brewster was a key figure in the history of photography. Thanks to his friendship with William Henry Fox Talbot he was able to introduce Talbot’s calotype invention to Scotland and crucially convince Talbot not to extend his patent to Scotland, thus allowing Scottish calotypists to work free of restrictions. Not content with introducing the calotype to Scotland, Brewster also introduced David Octavius Hill to Robert Adamson, giving birth to Scotland’s most influential photographic partnership, the subject of the exhibition which follows The View from Here at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery this summer.

Brewster also had a more direct influence on the medium when he improved upon previous stereoscopic inventions by replacing the mirrors with lenses, thus creating a much more manageable handheld device. With this invention an industry sprang up producing stereoscopes and viewing cards for a public increasingly eager to be magically transported to faraway places from the comfort of their own home.

David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson, Sir David Brewster, 1781 - 1868. Natural philosopher 1843

Viewing these images while separated in time by over a century can be a startling experience. Looking through a stereoscope, images of nineteenth century life appear before your eyes with a veracity that is not usually experienced as such a temporal remove. The experience is akin to discovering a colour photograph of a figure that one had only ever seen in black and white. The images can seem both unreal and more realistic at the same time.

A Braun, Mer de glace

In common with many other attempts to introduce 3D experiences, the popularity of stereoscopes faded over time, its fate the same as the vogue for 3D cinema in the 1950s and later in the 1980s (3D cinema has of course raised its head periodically and is currently enjoying a cinematic resurgence). One way in which the stereoscopic experience did endure was via the much-loved View-Master toy. This plastic viewer allowed users to click their way through multiple images on a disc, often of child-friendly scenes such as dinosaurs or stills from popular tv shows and films.

A View-master and disc (note the matching images on opposite sides of the disc)

The current wave for 3D and immersive technology presents an interesting parallel. The Google Cardboard viewer, a cheap cardboard device which allows the user to employ their own mobile phone to view VR environments and play games, bears a more than passing resemblance to the stereoscopic viewers of the past.

Google Cardboard

The resemblance goes beyond the superficial appearance, as the Google Cardboard uses the same binocular views as the stereoscope to create the illusion of depth. Indeed the similarities are such that the cardboard can be used as a stereoscopic viewer via apps such as Stereogram. The creator of this app, David Quaid, has also been working on a viewer which will soon provide access to many of the stereoscopic views from the National Galleries of Scotland collection using only a Cardboard device and a web browser. Watch this space.

This meeting of nineteenth century and twenty-first century technology allows users to experience these photographs in a way to which the two dimensional representations on our website just do not do justice. In the meantime why not head along to A View from Here and give the stereoscopes a try first hand.