A man with a crown of curly white hair lifts his eyes from a peculiar-looking device. “This is the Victorian sensation. This is a stereoscope. I look in here, and I see a heartbroken lady, waiting outside a church door, watching the man that she loves marry another woman.” He lifts his eyebrows and gently smiles. “It’s so vivid, it’s so clear, it’s so solid, it’s so 3-D, that you feel you can walk in and talk to these people.”
Brian May, the 68-year-old guitarist of Queen, the author of classic hits like “We Will Rock You” and “Fat Bottomed Girls,” is explaining to his YouTube audience the mechanics of the stereoscope, a 19th-century device for looking at photographs which, he says, “has never been equaled in terms of giving you the completely immersive 3-D experience.”
Ah, these are the days of perpetual revival: Witness the sales of vinyl records, which have reached levels unseen for more than two decades. Now, 177 years after its invention, the stereoscope also appears to be on the verge of an unlikely comeback. In England, May has relaunched the long-dormant London Stereoscopic Co., formerly a world leader in the trade. On this side of the pond, the public libraries of New York and Boston are digitizing their vast stereoscope collections. Black Dog & Leventhal, an imprint of Hachette, has published a series of stereoscopic “kits” that include hundreds of 3-D photographs from the Civil War, Gilded Age New York, Belle Epoque Paris, and the First World War.
Yet there is much more to the relevance of the stereoscope in 2015 than nostalgic fetishization of the artisanal. At a time when photography has become cheapened by its proliferation, the rebirth of the stereoscope — both in its original Victorian iteration and in the form of new technologies built on its basic platform — may help to revitalize what made photography so precious and so powerful in its early days, when it introduced an entirely new way of seeing people, places, and things. But that potential also carries some risks.
In an 1861 essay for The Atlantic Monthly, the Boston renaissance man Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. wrote about the profound implications of the device. An image seen through the stereoscope, he wrote, is like “a leaf torn from the book of God’s recording angel.”
Soon we may have access to the entire book. What will it be like to read it?
The stereoscope’s magic draws from our ability to view things differently from our left and right eyes. The brain combines those two images and negotiates a single perception of the world and its parts. The stereoscope re-creates that process artificially. It has a lens for each eye, and on the other side, a few inches away, a card with two photographs that appear identical but were actually captured from slightly different angles — the difference being the same as that between your average person’s eyes. When the left eye views the image on the left and the right eye views the image on the right, the brain combines them to produce a sensation amazing enough to impress the only astrophysicist on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.
The stereoscope was invented in 1838 by Charles Wheatstone, a professor of experimental philosophy, or natural science, at King’s College in London. Sir Wheatstone — a prolific inventor, he was knighted in 1868 — created the stereoscopic effect by joining two mirrors at right angles on a board; the reflected images joined in the middle to create one. Yet because it wasn’t until the following year that Louis Daguerre showed off his first photographs in Paris, the earliest stereoscopes used images drawn by hand, which had to mimic the differences in perception of the left and right eyes.
A few years later, a Scottish inventor named David Brewster, who had decades earlier created the first kaleidoscope, replaced his rival Wheatstone’s mirrors with refractive lenses, immensely simplifying the device and making it more compatible with photography.
Aside from a few modifications by Holmes in the late 1850s — making it lighter and more portable — the stereoscope has not changed much since.
The device was first shown to the public at the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition in London, essentially the first world’s fair, where a stereoscopic image of Queen Victoria was displayed and the monarch herself accepted a stereoscope as a gift. It quickly became a popular craze. In 1862, the London Stereoscopic Co. sold nearly a million stereographs. Its slogan: “A stereoscope in every home.” The trend was even more widespread in the United States, where it fed a middle-class desire for shortcuts to the refinement and self-improvement associated with the experience of travel.
Yet the stereoscope declined in popularity shortly after the end of the Civil War, replaced by a new trend: small images that friends and acquaintances exchanged and stored in private albums. The trading of cartes de visites, as they were called, served a somewhat similar function to the culture of sharing and selfies that has exploded in recent years online.
A few businesses tried to market cartes de visites depicting places rather than people, but they didn’t sell. Simple two-dimensional images didn’t come close to matching the immersive, mesmerizing experience of the stereoscope.
It enjoyed a peculiar second wind around the turn of the 20th century, when a New York-based company called Underwood and Underwood began promoting the stereoscope for its educational value. “When the student looks at stereographs of, say, a cotton field or a pyramid,” explained an article in a British magazine called The Academy, “he is no longer sitting in his schoolroom and looking at a picture, but he is, as it were, bodily transported to the scene itself.”
Though it enjoyed a revival as a children’s toy in the mid-20th century — the famous View-Master, debuted in 1939 and introduced color photography to the classic instrument — the stereoscope again returned to the collective attic and patiently bided its time.
In his writings about the stereoscope, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was what we would now call a tech-utopian. He declared that the stereoscope would be become “the card of introduction to make all mankind acquaintances.”
If it did not quite accomplish that, the stereoscope certainly offered — and still offers — a powerful sense of empathy with the subjects of the pictures. One image in the First World War stereoscope box published by Black Dog & Leventhal in 2013 shows an assembly of American soldiers lined up and ready for battle; through the stereoscope, you can carefully examine and estimate the youth, hardiness, destiny, and fear in each and every face.
One upshot of the rise of photography in the 19th century was an increase in humanitarian concern for the victims of atrocity and war, even when they were far removed from one’s own life and community. By forcing intimate acquaintance with distant suffering, photography radically expanded the circle of concern.
Until it didn’t. In her 1977 essay collection “On Photography,” the critic Susan Sontag wrote that people gradually became immune to the horrors depicted in photographs and wearied of being constantly asked to empathize with their victims. “Living with the photographed images of suffering,” Sontag wrote, “does not necessarily strengthen conscience and the ability to be compassionate. It can also corrupt them. Once one has seen such images, one has started down the road of seeing more — and more. Images transfix. Images anesthetize.”
If that was the unforeseen effect of flat, still photography, how much more so might it be of fully three-dimensional videos of poverty, misery, and gore? New technologies — based on the stereoscope itself — are about to change the way we relate to each other and to the world, introducing new and unfamiliar opportunities for the exercise both empathy and its opposite. They will allow Brian May to walk up to the jilted woman, tap her on the shoulder, and beg her not to cry. And she might actually listen.
Early next year, the Oculus Rift, a long-anticipated virtual-reality headset, will become commercially available to consumers. Created by a company bought by Facebook for $2 billion last year, the headset has sent spasms of excitement through the tech world and prompted the kind of praise evoked by the stereoscope more than 150 years ago. “The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a statement announcing the deal.
As with many tech innovations in the past few decades, the Oculus Rift will commence global domination by taking over gaming, but more vast and more economically fundamental sectors probably will fall not long thereafter. The commercial availability, and eventually the affordability, of virtual-reality headsets like the Rift are likely to permanently change art, entertainment, science, medicine, and education, and eventually, perhaps, the entire world of work.
At the most basic level, virtual-reality headsets are glorified stereoscopes. Yet no longer are you looking at a black-and-white still shot of British soldiers peeking over the top of a trench, every muscle clenched against flying bullets. You are now in the scene itself, you see their beads of sweat, you hear the bullets flying, you clench your own muscles as bits of blood and brain splash against a screen that is indistinguishable from your face.
The virtual-reality headset could eventually have wide-ranging effects across all areas of society. Its financial backers certainly think so. “By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life,” Zuckerberg wrote of Oculus Rift. “Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”
As was seen in some of the more over-the-top writing about the stereoscope in the 1850s, many virtual-reality enthusiasts clearly believe that devices like the Rift will grant access to something more real than reality itself. Sontag warned about this, too. “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs,” she wrote, “is the most irresistible form of mental pollution.”
When it goes on sale early next year, the Oculus Rift will cost hundreds of dollars and require a desktop computer to work. But cheaper options are already available, like Google Cardboard, which allows you to mount a smartphone on a foldable box and uses an app to conjure stereoscopic virtual-reality scenarios.
“At this point, Cardboard looks to me like an accelerant,” one YouTube reviewer enthused, “gasoline to the virtual-reality bonfire which is set to burn down convention in both entertainment, information consumption, and, quite frankly, the way we interact with the world as a whole.”
A representative of the London Stereoscopic Co. said Brian May was unavailable for comment.
Richard Kreitner is the archivist of the The Nation magazine.