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Stereo atlases as hybrid knowledge

Kelley Wilder

Considering the staggering quantity of stereo photographs in the world, we still know surprisingly little about them. In fact, along with magic lantern slides, the photograph in print, and postcards, they number among the most neglected of research subjects. Although one could attribute this to subject avoidance in the face of extreme numbers, as Anton Holzer has done, it could equally be down to the kinds of questions asked about stereo materials.1 Since stereo photographs often lack information about authorship and provenance, there is a tendency to ask questions of the one defining feature, the technology of the stereo, or the prevalent social history of its use and circulation. Long since, and still, circulated in their millions, stereos prove easy to find, cheap to buy, and are continually reinventing themselves in the photo-historical equivalent of a boom-and-bust economy. Given the current boom in 3-D—3-D television, 3-D movies, and the renewed interest in historical aspects of 3-D viewing—it is hard not to be swept up in several compelling stories presented by peddlers of stereo imaging. The claims of newer, less intrusive, more immersive technology in every iteration of stereo can channel historical and critical accounts of the stereo into narrow ways of thinking either with technology or against it.

One way of thinking manifests itself in the now discredited (but occasionally still used) triumphalist technological account retold in the few books available on the history of stereo imaging. Such an account begins with Sir Charles Wheatstone’s tabletop viewing device for looking at drawings in stereo. This bulky but effective equipment was superseded by Sir David Brewster’s and Oliver Wendell Holmes’s simpler, more cost-effective viewers. Decreasing costs and the increasing availability of lending libraries of views rendered the stereo more affordable, more widespread, and more democratic. Each iteration of viewing technology—anaglyph images, viewmaster, lenticular, holography—promised a greater ease of use and thus broader access, leading to recurrent surges of interest in 3-D imaging over the decades. In this argument, blame (or praise) rests squarely on the advent of each new technology. People, either viewers or producers, play little or no role.

Another prevalent and perhaps more subtle technological argument proposes the natural pairing and even rescue of stereoscopy by the technology of photography. Proximity of their respective announcements to the public in 1838 and 1839 encourages and often underpins this argument. It allows recent authors such as Klaus Hentschel to claim that stereoscopy “would have remained an obscure, odd invention ... if photographic processes had notallowed the relatively simple production of ... stereo images”.2 Hentschel is not alone in pursuing this trend to naturalize the study of stereoscopy within the realm of photographic research as an inseparable, and historically or, perhaps, commercially inevitable pairing.3 There are advantages and disadvantages to this position. Stepping sideways in this way brings stereoscopy out of the physiology lab and helpfully introduces it into the marketplace. However, the emphasis in this argument on the inevitably “obscure” role any invention stemming from the physiology lab can play in the history of stereoscopic seeing posits the sort of either/or dichotomy that passes over important aspects of the hybridity of learning through the stereoscope. It denies the role of the physiological as an important driver of stereoscopic production, and the consumption of knowledge. There seems to be no argument against seeing physiology, or the haptics of seeing in stereo, in opposition to either technological innovation or the commercial forces in which it occurs.

Pivotal studies of both the technology and marketing of stereo and other types of 3-D photography by Kim Timby, Brit Salveson, Leigh Gleason, and John Plunkett, among others, have enhanced our understanding of how to pull the two sides of technology and the marketplace together, showing how the commercial aspect can never really be separated from a consideration of stereo imaging.4 Commerce has an important role to play in any discussion of the formation and circulation of flat and stereo images, but it is not always the only factor to warrant our attention.

This chapter treats the use of photographic and non-photographic stereo images in scientific atlases. Perhaps, because they are not produced by the million, they present an opportunity to investigate a particular type of stereo image chosen for a certain area of study. The use of both photographic and non-photographic stereoscopic images in scientific atlases allows for a broader discussion in which photographic stereos are only one part of the continuum of multiple-image deployment in the sciences as a means to see and know. In this inquiry, it is vital to focus on the physiology lab and the marketplace together, since both these places inform and construct stereo imagining and, consequently, define how learners gained a sort of hybrid knowledge from stereo learning.

In both the lab and the market, materiality plays a key role in discussions about stereo. In 1861 Oliver Wendell Holmes described a stereo of the moon as being so round you felt you could “grasp it like an orange”.5 Patrizia Di Bello and John Plunkett have both taken up this nineteenth-century rhetoric to interrogate the role of embodiment in Victorian photography and vision.6 The haptic dimension is powerful when linked to vision, and not without a material component. It is no mistake that Jane Bennett, author of one of the more influential books of the material turn, uses a quote from Henry Thoreau combining the senses, vision, and objects to introduce Vibrant Matter. “I must let my senses wander as my thought, my eyes see without looking ... Go not to the object; let it come to you”. In a book about the vitality of “thing-power”, vision and embodiment go hand in hand.8 While the embodied viewing offered by stereo imaging is critically important, as is the haptic dimension, it should not get in the way of questions about historical shifts in opinion about stereo viewing—as it does in the case of Plunkett—or, in particular, about the different ways different groups, in my case groups of scientists, or science students, utilized stereo to acquire knowledge. Insight into scientific knowledge and stereo viewing might be further enhanced by an improved understanding of whatever it is that viewers stand to gain from viewing stereo rather than flat images.

Atlases provide an excellent group of objects for such a study. Atlases, the “dictionaries of the sciences of the eye”, as Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison describe them, reveal a particular, and particularly situated view of disciplinary practices. In atlases, text comes and goes, but images are the “alpha and the omega of the genre”.9

As published works they are also commercial enterprises in the promising area of educational provision. It was a lucrative market that grew throughout the twentieth century. Atlases were produced with both single and stereographic illustrations, and they were disseminated in their thousands. The notion of an atlas, with its emphasis on sequential learning, groups of didactic images, and disciplinary knowledge, allows us to consider the qualities of the knowledge a user could expect. If, as Daston and Galison claim, “atlas images make the science” then what should we make of the move to stereo images in certain realms of atlas production?10

Conjuring up the visual and mental activity that takes place when viewing a stereo can be difficult. In the first place there is a card, with two images. The card might be just slightly bigger than the size of the images, and contain minimal text, or possibly much larger and include significant amounts of text. It will be colored: sometimes yellow, sometimes gray, and sometimes brown.11 Producers had to strike a balance between branding their cards distinctively and keeping pace with changes in taste. Each stereo has a left-hand image and a right-hand image. The photographic images are sometimes taken separately, as with most astronomical objects, but more usually at the same time, with a special stereo camera. There is a third and more elusive image, the one recreated in each viewer’s mind. Patrizia Di Bello describes how

the two flat images at first seem to hover and tremble from side to side, then they overlap, and a fraction of a second later the planes in the resulting single image separate backwards and forwards, creating the three-dimensional effect.

It is this moment, where “the sense of scale ... changes, and the viewer seems to become commensurate to the image”.12 It is partly in this moment of exertion in seeing this third image where the work of learning from stereo seems, in part, to be located. The third image is worth discussing in terms of hybridity, as it presents a certain sort of reproduction, albeit not the sort of one Benjamin had in mind.

This image is not a physical image and it is unique to each viewer. It might even be unique to each viewing session, because it is highly reliant on the situational lighting. It is also unstable in a way, responding to the viewer’s focus on the foreground or background. As you “look around” this mental image, the other parts of it seem to fade, snapping back when you train your attention on it. Indeed, a good portion of this “image”, if we can call it that, is embodied (or perhaps dis-embodied) attention. The sense of stepping into a stereo image, much lauded by writers from the nineteenth century to the present, has perhaps been the most intriguing part of stereo viewing and has bolstered scholarship on the haptic and embodied viewing it comprises.13 In order to fully understand the kind of knowledge or learning derived from the stereo image, however, it seems necessary not only to address the haptic aspect but also to take into consideration both attention and introspection. Looking at a stereo image with a stereo viewer trains the viewers’ attention, inasmuch as it invites them to put their eyes to the glasses or lens. In doing so, viewers shut out their (visual) surroundings. They then have to do a bit of internal organizing, which is what Di Bello is describing in the quote above. The process of mixing attention and introspection in this way heightens several impressions: first, viewers’ awareness of their own process of organizing their vision; second, awareness of any auditory input that might come from someone reading a text, for instance, which was part and parcel of many stereo tours and atlases; and, third, the expansion and contraction of the image field.

The much neglected issue of scale has only recently been addressed by scholars like Olivier Lugon. Although he focuses on the physical enlargement and reduction of flat photographs, his points can be taken into account usefully in consideration of the mental stereo image. Scale, for Lugon, is an agent of knowledge.14 Unlike the change of scale involved in magic lantern projection, which rendered the experience collective through enlargement, any enlargement of the mental stereo image restricts the viewing experience in the extreme, reducing it to the private realm of a sole individual. Lugon notes that enlargement for exhibition in the latter decades of the nineteenth century also isolated individual photographs, “fostering the deep and concentrated contemplation of an individual viewer immersed in a single print”.15 Attention is captured and fostered by enlargement, and more so when that enlargement encompasses, as it does in the mental stereo image, the entire field of view, and the entire attention of the viewer. The disappearance of the surface on which the stereo is drawn or photographed was even known to drive the creation of stereos in science. In astronomy, for instance, Thomas Edward Heath published a stereoscopic star chart in 1905, determined to exhibit the current findings on stellar parallax and replace star charts laid out on a flat surface with stereoscopic charts for lay learners.16 His acknowledgment of the market in which his stereo atlas functioned is a useful barometer for these competing markets. Authors frequently had to assert just what was advantageous about the stereo atlas. Clearly, the learning in these cases derived not only from the stereo image, but just as much from the sort of attention and introspection induced by looking at stereoscopic images.

Michael Hagner writes compellingly that the early nineteenth-century training ground for attention conceived as a virtue can be found in the notions of introspection and self-knowledge emerging at that time in anthropology and experimental psychology.17 Hagner describes how scientists in the nineteenth century fostered attention as “an instrument of education and the development of the individual”.18 In his argument about psychophysics he notes that Hermann von Helmholtz and Ernst Mach emphasized the role of performance in introspection and attention.19 In philosophy, introspection is often placed opposite action, but this kind of active introspective looking, where an action is required to force introspection, replaces that opposition with a dialogue. The action leads to the introspection. In this action there are of course a whole host of external forces, not least among them commercial gain.

Take an atlas like the Imperial Stereoscopic Anatomy of the Head and Neck, published in 1909 by DJ. Cunningham (Figure 11.1). In UK universities where medicine has long been taught, a full copy, or several copies, of this atlas can often be found in the library.20 The use of a stereoscopic atlas as a teaching tool for students of anatomy might seem to be an unexceptional use of stereo imaging. The most obvious reading of such an object, with its informative map and graphic above, and handily numbered parts of the image below, is one in which the card is used in place of a cadaver for independent study. The material and three-dimensional aspect attributed to all stereo images is here merely a stand-in for the real human body. However convenient this explanation might be, it does not account for those stereo cards in which nothing is three-dimensional, as, for example, in the image of a brain depicted in Figure 11.2. This is a difficult object for stereo imaging, as the brain photograph is very flat, with little recession or differentiation. All attempts to view this image in stereo fail. It continues to look flat, rather than taking on the three-dimensional look of a stereo image. Instead of taking this as a failure of the stereo effect, or a lack in photographic skill, it presents an opportunity to see how stereo views can be used for something other than adding a

Brain, 1909. Source

Figure 11.1 Brain, 1909. Source: D. J. Cunningham, Stereoscopic Atlas of the Head and Neck (New York: William Wood & Co., 1909), Section: Central Nervous System, card 31.

sense of the haptic and volumetric. In this case it reveals how the publisher and author gained the viewers’ attention and complicity through the mechanics of stereo viewing.

In this scenario, it does not matter that the three-dimensional aspect of the image does not occur, because the act of viewing it is similar to viewing all the other stereo images, and serves to train the viewer’s attention on the image. Each viewer is complicit in training his or her attention on a particular object. This happens first through reading the text information at the top of the card. Then there is a second step in which the text information is blocked out by raising the stereo viewer to the eyes and allowing the expanded image to take over the visual field. At this point, the image is largely unhinged from the real world. It fills the field of vision, losing scale. It is also no longer planar, aligning to the flat photographic surface pasted on a board, so it loses its surface characteristics as well as its edges.

It gains other characteristics however. It begins to resemble a model, albeit one that has a particular perspective. The viewer may not pick it up and turn it, but is forced to see the object from that particular perspective. In this way the author of the stereo atlas can exert control from a great distance by controlling the perspective of the ste-reophotograph(s). This control is key to the aims of the Anatomy, where the stereo aspect of the images is only a small part of the goal of this kind of controlled seeing. The brain example in Figure 11.2 is not the only stereo pair to have no three-dimensional

Stereo pair of brain (see Figure 11.1), enlarged image (correctly sized for stereo viewing with a device like Owl Viewer)

Figure 11.2 Stereo pair of brain (see Figure 11.1), enlarged image (correctly sized for stereo viewing with a device like Owl Viewer).

effect upon viewing. Numerous X-rays in this particular atlas also lack the stereo aspect when viewed, lending strength to the argument that the control of viewing is as important to the experience of this atlas as three-dimensionality (Figure 11.3). Imagine the repetition of studying properly from this anatomical atlas.

The student would open the box, take out the card, read the information, raise the stereo to his or her eyes, organize vision, train attention, consider the image formed in the mind’s eye, and then lower the card to look again at the text information and identify its important content. This repetitive, complicit, attentive looking, coupled with the repetitive movement of the hands and arms, is a part of the knowledge acquisition process required by the makers of these atlases. It is a sort of peripatetic learning for the eyes and brain. Sarah de Rijke and Anne Beaulieu, in their discussion of digital atlases, call this an interface, a description equally apt for analogue stereo atlases.21 In this sort of multiple-image situation, it is not a passive encyclopedia or repository of knowledge, but one in which knowledge is in part built up by repetitive activity. Part of the compelling action in transferring knowledge lies in the introspective, repetitive, and complicit nature of the activities. While it is tempting to attribute the success of stereo entirely to photography, it is clear that this kind of learning was not confined to photographic stereo atlases, but extended beyond into drawn stereo atlases.

In the early decades of the twentieth century countless stereo atlases were produced with drawings as well as photographs. It is important to remember that as remarkable as photographic atlases are for photographic historians, they exist within a group of other commercial items, directed at the same audience. Competing theories about scientific education and the value of stereo cards to that education ensured a variety of marketable items. In 1921, for instance, Paul Groth supplemented his Elemente der physikalischen and chemischen Krystallographie with 25 photographed models of crystals in stereo and placed the stereo cards at the back of his book for reference (Figure 11.4).22 Five years later, Groth’s contemporary Max von Laue and his colleague Richard von Mises brought out a sophisticated small book of stereo drawings of crystal structures for students, Stereoskopbilder von Kristallgittern (Figure 11.5).


------------------------------------------- No. 37



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The figures indiute—

  • 1—Frontal Sinus
  • 5- Ethrooid Celia

A—Internal Auditory Canal uf Left Side

  • 4—External Anditoey Canal of Right Side
  • 6— Literal Venous Stans

CUp/rflnt by Dr. M. It Crjvr. I»»


X-ray of skull, 1909. Source

Figure 11.3 X-ray of skull, 1909. Source: D. J. Cunningham, Stereoscopic Atlas of the Head and Neck (New York: William Wood & Co., 1909), Section: Central Nervous System, card 37.

Stereo pair X-ray of skull (see Figure 11.3), enlarged image (correctly sized for stereo viewing with a device like Owl Viewer.)

Figure 11.4 Stereo pair X-ray of skull (see Figure 11.3), enlarged image (correctly sized for stereo viewing with a device like Owl Viewer.)

In contrast to the Groth text, where the stereo images illustrate and expand the main event, the text in the von Laue and von Mises production consists almost entirely of the stereo cards themselves, with minimal text only on the cards. The title was translated into English on the title page, as was each card title, presumably to reach a wider audience. The book was popular enough to be republished ten years later, in 1936, and can be found in university libraries throughout the world. Both productions were aimed at a student market, and both attempted to engage readers through the stereo image. Von Laue and von Mises, however, put the stereo drawings at the center of the learning process, replacing copious texts with a series of drawings that contained all the knowledge they wished to impart. Contrary to the idea that photography in some way rescued stereo viewing, these books show that photography and drawing were companions in a larger marketplace in which stereo viewing, drawn or photographed, represented a certain sort of hybrid knowledge. The unique selling point in this market was the controlled vision offered by the stereo method. Knowledge did not exist passively in the photograph or the drawing, but was activated by repetitive and controlled seeing.

Stereo atlases like the ones discussed here are not a simple product of the use of stereo photography or stereo drawings. The value of the atlas lies not in the supposed truth of photography, or drawing, or even in the haptic or three-dimensional qualities of the combined image when viewed. Attention of a particular sort was created by a controlled set of movements that was in turn dictated by the material and repetitive

Paul Groth, Elemente der physikalischen und chemischen Krystallographie (Munich

Figure 11.5 Paul Groth, Elemente der physikalischen und chemischen Krystallographie (Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1921) with card 12.

Max von Laue and Richard von Mises, eds., Stereoskopbilder von Kristallgittern (Berlin

Figure 11.6 Max von Laue and Richard von Mises, eds., Stereoskopbilder von Kristallgittern (Berlin: Springer, 1926) with card 6.

form of stereo viewing. Authors and editors who were able to dictate and direct that attention through the stereo format could participate from afar even in self-directed learning. Accordingly, the knowledge created was dictated in part by the mechanics of stereo viewing, rather than the subject at hand. It was a certain type of attention rather than a certain type of image that was being sold in stereo atlases. Market forces and current research in science education likewise dictated the form or format of the atlases. Any investigation of the kinds of knowledge created in stereo atlases would need to delve deeply into publishers’ editorial and distribution policies in order to succeed. Nonetheless, it is clear that the knowledge imparted by the stereo atlas sprang from a number of sources, internal and external to the viewer.

Hybridity in the case I have outlined here is a matter of the confluence of several things: repetitive performance, images, and market forces. While all photographs are hybrid by their very nature, stereo or other 3-D photographs (and drawings) incorporate a complex type of performative learning based on physical movement coupled with intense introspection. The knowledge gained from using stereo atlases depended on the users’ repetitive action, attention, and active looking. Even in cases where the imaginary 3-D image plays a negligible role, the action and attention remain the same, and so learning can continue. It is clear that scientific knowledge could be, and was, also imparted through flat photographs in the form of a portfolio or a book. Stereo atlases offered a particular format that promised authors more control over their learners’ actions, and thus more direction in the methods and, presumably, outcomes of the learning. It was this promise of learning through not just looking but active or maybe actioned learning that drove stereo atlas makers. The sort of hybridity built into stereo atlases rendered looking only part of the main event. The images, and their imagined image, were important, but only when framed by the actions of the viewer. Framing the haptics of stereo looking in this way broadens the discussion about haptics beyond the image, to the body, incorporating an embodied looking that uses more than just the eyes. It also allows a consideration where technology, market, and image use come together to explain one particular aspect of stereo photography.


  • 1 Anton Holzer, editorial, Fotogeschichte 109 (2008): 3.
  • 2 Klaus Hentschel, Visual Cultures in Science and Technology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 19.
  • 3 Laura Burd Schiavo makes a similarly naturalized argument in “From Phantom Image to Perfect Vision”, in New Media 1740-1915, eds. Lisa Gitelman and Geoff Pingree (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 113-138.
  • 4 Britt S. Salvesen, “Selling Sight: Stereoscopy in Mid-Victorian Britain” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1997). Leigh Gleason, “Canvassed and Delivered: Direct-Selling at Keystone View Company, 1898-1910” (PhD diss., De Montfort University, 2017). John Plunkett, “‘Feeling Seeing’: Touch, Vision and the Stereoscope”, History of Photography
  • 37, no. 4 (2013): 389-396. Kim Timby, 3D and Animated Lenticular Photography: Between Utopia and Entertainment (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2015).
  • 5 Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Sun Paintings and Sun Sculpture”, Atlantic Monthly, July 1861, 13-29.
  • 6 Patrizia Di Bello, “‘Multiplying Statues by Machinery’: Stereoscopic Photographs of Sculptures at the 1862 International Exhibition”, History of Photography 37, no. 4 (2013): 412-420.
  • 7 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), n.p. [xxiv],
  • 8 Ibid., 2.
  • 9 Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (London: Zone Books, 2008), 22.
  • 10 Ibid.
  • 11 Changing fashions for color are a reminder of the commercial word in which stereos circulated.
  • 12 Di Bello, “Multiplying Statues”, 413 ft. 8.
  • 13 Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990). John Plunkett, “‘Feeling Seeing’: Touch, Vision and the Stereoscope”, History of Photography 37, no. 4 (2013): 389-396, and Di Bello, ibid.
  • 14 Olivier Lugon, “Photography and Scale: Projection, Exhibition, Collection”, Art History
  • 38, no. 2 (April 2015): 386-403.
  • 15 Ibid., 391.
  • 16 Thomas Edward Heath, Our Stellar Universe: Spectroscopic Star Charts and Spectroscopic Key Maps (London: King, Sell and Olding, 1905).
  • 17 Michael Hagner, “Toward a History of Attention in Culture and Science”, MLN 118, no. 3 (April 2003): 670-687.
  • 18 Ibid., 673.
  • 19 Ibid., 681.
  • 20 Copies or partial copies can be found in the Libraries of Leicester University, Cambridge University, Edinburgh University, and King’s College London.
  • 21 Sarah de Rijcke and Anne Beaulieu, “Networked Neuroscience: Brain Scans and Visual Knowing at the Intersection of Atlases and Databases”, in Representation in Scientific Practice Revisited, eds. Catelijne Coopmans, Michael Lynch, Janet Vertesi and Steve Woolgar (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 131-152. See also Sarah de Rijcke and Anne Beaulieu, “Image as Interface: Consequences for Users of Museum Knowledge”, Library Trends 59, no. 4 (2011): 663-685.
  • 22 Paul Groth, Elemente der physikalischen und chemischen Krystallographie (Berlin: R. Oldenbourg, 1921).
  • 23 Max von Laue and Richard von Mises, eds., Stereoskopbilder von Kristallgittern (Berlin: Springer, 1926).

12 Retouching, staging, and authenticity

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