stereoscope illustration

woman with stereoscopic camera By the late 1890s halftone reproduction reached a level of acceptable quality and became economically expedient. In addition to the increase in photographically illustrated books and magazines, a number of major companies were formed to produce and market stereographs. Stereography contributed to the gestation of a documentary tradition in American photography. A successful stereoscopic photographer had to be aggressive, to get close to the action. Not only was he competing with the magazine photographers, but to make a successful stereo image he needed a good foreground and mid ground. While the magazine photographer could photograph from a distance and rely on judicious cropping or enlargement to enhance the image, distance simply deflates the exciting illusion of a stereograph.


The principle of three-dimensional perception from two dissimilar images was first demonstrated with drawings in 1838. While experiments in stereoscopic photography were made in the 1840s using the daguerreotype process, it was the development of an effective negative/positive photographic process that made it possible to produce multiple prints in large numbers. In the late 1850s, a number of companies were formed to produce and market stereographs featuring foreign and domestic scenes. The images' remarkable three-dimensional illusion made the stereoscope a popular item in the Victorian parlor. After a decline during the 1880s, stereoscopic photographs made a resurgence in the 1890s. By the time William McKinley was first elected, in 1896, the publication of stereographs had once again become a mass phenomenon.


At the turn of the century, stereographs were not just parlor amusements but provided detailed visual information about remote parts of the world. At a time when halftone reproductions were still crude, stereographs were actual photographs, high resolution contact prints from glass plate negatives. With mechanized printing facilities, some companies claimed to produce up to 15,000 photographs per day.' Increased production, coupled with aggressive door-to-door sales, helped make the stereograph a mass medium offering both education and entertainment. Among the companies competing at this time were the Underwood & Underwood Company, the H.C. White Company, the B.W. Kilburn Company, the Universal Photo-Art Company, and the Keystone View Company, all specializing in the production of stereoscopic images on world-wide topics. Keystone eventually acquired the negative holdings of all of these competitors, now in turn represented by the Keystone-Mast Collection of the California Museum of Photography.

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