All stereos posted here are parallel pairs; to view them, relax your eyes and try to look “beyond” the image; or use a stereo viewer.
Almost a year ago I finally wrote about stereoscopy in Russian; my plan was not just to share my own wonderful experience but also to spread the love for stereoscopy among my Russian-speaking audience. Eventually, I ended up creating two texts instead of one, the first one focusing on the history of a recent surge of interest towards this seemingly obscure aspect of photography, and the second one elaborating my own experience as a stereo amateur. Recently I felt the need to translate or rather rewrite these two texts – so that I could share this essay with my English speaking friends. And here we go, this is dedicated to you, my dear Team S.!
When I was a kid I had a set of stereo slides, and they were among my most treasured possessions. Each card contained six stereo pairs featuring a story; you had to start from the bottom and gradually go up. Some stories were recognizable – I had “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Snowwhite,” etc. Some of them, such as the adventures of a mischievous mouse, or the life of teddy bears, were not so well-known; I never found out the origins of these stories. To the best of my knowledge, all these cards were produced in East Germany and sold in the USSR in the 1980s. I was so entranced by the whole another world that opened to me when I looked into this “binocular” – this experience was very real.
Fast-forward to the fall of 2017, when I rediscovered Queen, fell deeply in love with their music, and, out of curiosity, bought Queen in 3D by Brian May. When I opened it, set up the Owl Stereoscope, and looked at the first stereo, I was immediately transported back to my childhood. Because nothing can compare to this first thrill of seeing an image that is supposed to be flat in all three dimensions. There is something very simple and yet absolutely magical about parallel stereos when everything is in plain view and yet you need to have a special vision to start seeing it in depth. You linger on a brink of a different world yet not fully immersed, and because of that, the sense of a miracle being so close stays with you forever.
I always loved nineteenth-century literature, and perhaps because of this stereoscopy became so ingrained in my everyday life; I admire Victorians’ love of illusions, magic tricks, their constant attempts to peek beyond ordinary life. This curiosity, this yearning for another world would manifest itself in their love for all these magical boxes, such as diorama, cosmorama, or cyclorama. You will also see it in their books, like, for example, “The Golden Pot” by E.T.A. Hoffmann that told the story of a young man and his journey of awakening, of seeing through and beyond the ordinary world, and his gradual transition from the dull reality to the “world of poetry.” Hoffmann pursued this theme a number of times, including the world-famous “Nutcracker” – written as a children’s story, it contains the same elements as “The Golden Pot:” the hero steps beyond the limits of everyday life and is granted with a special vision of seeing the world that coexists with ours but is completely invisible for common people.
Stereoscopic photography in its original form, when it flourished in the 1850s was, by all means, a part of this Victorian fascination with this possibility to see “another world.” And, as opposed to “magic boxes” that required more complex and expensive contraptions, stereo cards produced by the newly opened London Stereoscopic Company, required only a stereoscope. “In a world which had never experienced Television, the Movies, or the Internet, this was understandably a revelation.” (*) This marvelous art became widely popular, stereo cards were produced in huge numbers, and were circulating widely in Europe and later in North America. The interest started to fade along with the departure of the Victorian epoch, with its interest in magic boxes and illusions that were luring spectators into this world that one could see but never touch.
“Only now, in the dull light of the nocturnal lamp, did I notice that there was a round piece of glass in the box, through which light could be seen. I looked round to make sure that my aunt was not coming and then put my eyes to this glass window and caught sight of a beautiful, richly turned-out rooms, around which there walked richly dressed people <…>
The next morning, when I came to greet my aunt, she was sitting at her table. The mysterious box in front of her, but its lid has been removed, and my aunt was pulling various cut-out figures from it… I looked through the pictures for a long time: there were shepherds, cows, Tyroleans, and Turks; there were also richly dressed ladies and gentlemen…” (Vladimir Odoevsky, “The Cosmorama,” 1842. Trans. by Neil Cornwell) (*)
With the emergence of cinema, film, and television, stereoscopy in its initial form of parallel stereo cards was reduced to being an object of special interest among certain circles of stereo collectors or people interested in Victorian artifacts and curiosities. And most likely, it would have stayed there. But once upon a time, there was an English boy who found a peculiar card in one of the cereal boxes, with two almost identical photos of a hippo. Eager to see this image properly, the boy bought a simple stereoscope, slid the card into the slot… and was amazed to see the hippo in 3d, as if it came to life in front of his eyes. The boy was inspired to start shooting his own stereo photos, first, with a regular camera, and later, when he grew up, with stereo cameras. Also, he became a passionate collector of Victorian stereo cards. Also, together with his friends, he formed one of the greatest rock bands of our time.
Stereoscopy became, first, a hobby, then, a passion, and finally, a vocation for Dr. Brian May: in the early years, he was collecting all things stereoscopic while touring the world with Queen; later he started presenting his findings through the books based on his collections, including the stereoscopic sketches of village life, Victorian recreations of famous paintings and drawings, or the series of “life in hell” stereos, printed on French tissues. In 2008, Brian gave a new life to the London Stereoscopic Company, worked on various stereo projects, and, most importantly, started teaching his vast audience that every single person can become a stereo photographer. And of course, he published Queen in 3-D, a book that became my gate to the world of stereoscopy.
For many of us, this is where the journey began. Having fallen in love with Queen music, or just being their life-long fan, you buy this book, you plunge deeper and deeper into the world of 3d… And then you think – what if? What if I can do it as well? Well, the LSC, together with Dr. Brian, does everything to convince their audience, they develop stereoscopes that fit phones’ screens, they post tutorials, they give lectures that show their vast collections and educate us all. Eventually, you download an app on your phone and start going through a long and incredible process of learning.
My first stereos were for the most part very mediocre and almost flat, but since I had absolutely no knowledge or training I just kept on trying. It was the spring of 2018, my backyard was full of early blooms, and so I had my everyday field of practice. I started posting my stereos on Instagram – again, something I have not even planned to do, and soon I found myself inside an incredible community of stereo photographers that embraces the whole world. Some of them were newbies, just like me, some of them were much more seasoned in their stereo skills, and some were the true masters of this art.
Thanks to this unexpected hobby, I found many friends that supported me, sometimes without even knowing that, through harder times. I love this deep feeling of warmth, mutual respect, and of course, of safety – when you are not being judged or criticized. This year, I was extremely lucky to meet some of these wonderful people in person, and my feeling that these relationships go beyond the social media connections has strengthened. This is something that I never take for granted – the older you become the harder it is to find new friends.
The IG stereo community in many ways overlaps with the community of Queen fans, or rather, the fans of Dr. May (because of that, many profiles on IG say that they are “Inspired by Brian May”). The love of stereo photography is contagious, especially for those who love Queen music and read Brian’s weekly posts. When Queen and Adam Lambert tour the world, fans often post stereos of their performances. Brian maintains a close connection with his stereo followers by keeping an eye on IG feed, and sometimes even reposts the most interesting stereo photos. He constantly welcomes newcomers and teaches them how to free-view stereos in parallel and cross-eye versions, as well as how to take shots with your phone.
For me, this is an unmatched experience; I have never had this kind of bond with so many people from different sides of the globe. This is a breath of fresh air – thanks to my stereo pals, I am looking at the beauty and multitude of natural wonders: I see stunning Northern landscapes from Norway; I recognize my favorite corners and sights in New York City or London; I get to be in the first rows of rock shows seeing my beloved band perform on stage; I see the fiery sunsets of Southern California and the multicolored parks in Japan. And most importantly, I see these wonders through the eyes of my friends, because every single photo tells its own story.
I think it took me at least a year to start getting a hang of the whole thing; in the beginning, I was too focused on getting it right, with proper depth. Gradually, it became a sort of meditation for me: I found out that this process cannot be too short or too fast; you have to shoot many takes, choose the ones that work, align and edit them, then choose the best, think of a caption, and finally, post. I taught myself not to hurry, to fight frustration (when suddenly the wind blows, or you accidentally move, or a car drives by), and most importantly, to learn from others. The results sometimes surprise me a lot, especially when I get some praise from my favorite stereo and photo artists.
And now, when we have an endless winter ahead of us, my friends are sharing the pictures of Christmas trees and ornaments; I look at stereos of flowers and blue skies from the South, I can breathe in the air of Mediterranean city, and enjoy the sunny landscapes. I share my world too, our mighty forests, our red leaves, and our gleaming white snow. I cannot even start saying how much I am grateful to all of my friends for their kind words and support, for all lessons and inspiration that they provide every single day. And I am endlessly thankful to the London Stereoscopic Company and Dr. Brian May for changing my perception of the world, for showing me the wonders of the universe, such as the Moon craters or the tiny rocks on a distant asteroid.
P. S. I would like to express my deep gratitude to Denis Pellerin for giving me permission to use the photos from the London Stereoscopic Company Galleries.
Katya Neklyudova, 2019