The Stereoscopic Society

Stereoscopy is as old as photography itself. The techniques for tricking the suggestible brain into seeing three dimensions by placing two overlapping images side by side was first described in 1838 in a Royal Society paper ‘on some remarkable, and hitherto unobserved, phenomena of binocular vision’ by the English physicist Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875). His stereoscopic system was based on the use of simple painted images of flowers, vases, and sculpture. Two years later, though, when William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) developed an early form of negative (making possible the mechanical reproduction of multiple images), Wheatstone worked with him to create the world’s first stereograph: a view of Fox Talbot’s home, Lacock Abbey.

‘Old Viking ship, explorer of northern seas and  burial boat of Norse chief Christiana, Norway’ (dated 1905).

Consequently, for those who study and collect stereographs (most famously Sir Brian May, guitarist for Queen and patron of the Stereoscopic Society; see CA 379), there are at least two major themes. One is the history of the technology, which has come a long way since the age of Queen Victoria, with digital applications now used to create 3D films, games, and immersive virtual-reality experiences.

The other is the vast range of subjects captured in stereoscopes. A recent exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society in London featured historically important images of the eastward spread of the railway system and the mid-19th-century industrial revolution in America. Costume historians use stereographs to chart the rise and fall of fashions, such as the craze for crinolines. A recently catalogued collection of 630 images deposited in the Warwickshire County Record Office provides historians with mid-19th-century views of the county’s main towns at a pivotal moment in their development.

‘The coronation chair, used by sovereigns for over 700 years, at Westminster Abbey’ (dated 1911). 

The Stereoscopic Society mounts talks and exhibitions, and holds regular meetings in London, the Midlands, and Edinburgh, while the three-day annual convention is an opportunity to share historic images and newly created 3D productions. Its newsletter and Journal of 3D Imaging are supplemented by a library of specialist publications.

‘The north-east corner of the Great Pyramid  where tourists ascend’ (dated 1904). Images: from the collection of Professor Paul Nicholson, Cardiff University

Sir Brian May first attended a meeting in the 1970s at the invitation of his neighbour, the Society’s President at the time. He has since become an evangelist for the medium through his books, talks, exhibitions, and the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy. You too could easily become hooked by this fascinating photographic innovation.

Further information: 
There is also a new exhibition at the Watts Gallery: Victorian Virtual Reality: photographs from the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy (until 25 February 2024). 

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