What We Want
Photography changes the places and scenes we have access to
David Haberstich, associate curator of photography in the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center, writes about how early stereo photographic “tours” turned viewers into virtual travelers and observers.
When photography burst upon the world in 1839, it was praised for its naturalism and ability to replicate visual reality. Although the early forms that photographic images took—the daguerreotype and the paper processes of William Henry Fox Talbot—looked very different from one another, the close relationship of both to the ways the world was perceived by human vision was indisputable. Soon enough, the deficiencies of photographs became apparent, and differences between camera pictures and retinal imagery became more obvious. Photographers and their customers longed for color and three-dimensional representation. Daguerreotypists responded by hand-tinting images, usually modestly—a little red in cheeks, gold on jewelry—although occasionally a heavier hand nearly obliterated photographic character.
Photographers next experimented with stereoscopic daguerreotypes attempting to duplicate the way our eyes apprehended three-dimensional reality, although results were generally unsatisfactory. Paper stereoscopic prints soon became more practical and convincing, and by the mid-19th century stereographic images mounted side-by-side on cards became popular. By the end of the 19th century, companies were mass-producing stereographs, shrewdly marketing them both as educational aids and home entertainment. Peering through stereoscopes, viewers encountered worlds of simulated and spatially-enhanced reality.
Numbered sets of stereographs enabled people to embark on armchair travel adventures, which prefigured both the cinema and the travel slide show. Each set, described as a “tour,” documented a country or region; descriptive captions were provided for each view, and frequently additional texts were printed on the backs of the cards. Companies such as Underwood & Underwood, H.C. White, and the Keystone View Co. advertised their products as virtual travel, whose visual effects would provide a simulacrum of travel to exotic lands, but without the discomfort and inconvenience of actual locomotion. Some ads, in a nasty bit of chauvinism, suggested that actual travel to other countries might expose American travelers to pernicious “foreign” ideas and unhealthful influences.
Documentary views of unmanipulated scenes—landscapes, cityscapes, and people engaged in everyday tasks—captured the public’s imagination. Although the images lacked color, at first, stereoscopy had such great appeal that publishers went on to augment their “tours” with smaller thematic sets of comic narratives and genre sequences featuring images of posed actors in staged environments. Stereograph historian William Culp Darrah called this new category of images “composition” stereographs because photographers composed and directed the sequences, like a motion picture director creating a fictional film. These narrative sequences represent photographers working in “directorial” mode, as A.D. Coleman termed this more willful style of photography, which went on to become a hallmark of much important contemporary photography. Duane Michals employed it in surrealistic photographic sequences, and Cindy Sherman referred to the heritage of motion picture narrative in her constructed “film stills.”
A graduate school classmate of mine, when asked what a photograph “should look like,” replied, “the tension between reality and artifice.” Photographs made in this “directorial mode” might be said to embody that tension. And if he was right, even the purest straight documentary photograph also reveals that tension. In stereographs, the illusion of the third dimension added another element to bridge the gap between photographs to reality—and presents a conundrum for viewers. Nowadays, having experienced manipulated or “faked” photographs and the fictions of motion picture drama and pseudo-documentaries, we’ve grown more sophisticated about the relationship between photographs and the realities they purport to document. We know photographs aren’t always what they seem to be.
Viewers of stereographs in a less sophisticated age—at the turn of the 20th century—made the mental transition from reality to images of it, and from documentary travel pictures to more “composed” sequences with alacrity and, perhaps, less critical scrutiny. Theatrical sequences were quite different from, and provided “comic relief,” from more educational travel views. Most examples of constructed “realities” in stereographs were less concerned with reality than with emphasizing their often low-brow humor or sentimental intent. For example, some of these sequences depicted exaggerated and unflattering situations that reflect the cultural values and racism of the period in which they were made. Stereographs of this sort could scarcely have convinced anyone that they were historical documents, but they effectively communicated and supported prevailing stereotypes that were quite real at the time. In that sense, staged stereographs distorted “reality” to coincide with the reality of contemporary prejudices. This tradition of staged imagery, still practiced today, now informs our current questioning of photography as a faithful witness and adds another layer of doubt to make us distrust the connection between photographs and reality.
In a simpler time, however, the audiences for stereographs enjoyed their lifelike qualities without pondering such philosophical issues too deeply. From the 1860s through the early decades of the 20th century, tens of millions of stereographs were manufactured and sold. The magic of 3-D brought the wonders of the ancient world, splendid architecture of Europe, and strangely costumed peoples from distant lands into homes to educate and entertain the public, and staged comic and sentimental dramatic sequences fascinated Americans, many of whom might never have experienced live theatrical performances.
- The Underwood Travel System, Catalog No. 28 [p. 4 illustration: Man holding stereoscope, pointing to Egypt on a large globe : line drawing, ca. 1907.]