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At the Dawn of 3-D


Brian May with a T.R. Williams original glass negative.The mania for 3-D imagery could not be suppressed. Millions gobbled up the goods as quickly as the studios could churn them out, on both sides of the Atlantic. Three-dimensional images of fanciful fantasies competed with idyllic visions of faraway places.

Sound familiar? But this was more than 150 years ago. In 1838, the year before Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot separately raced to announce discoveries in photography, Sir Charles Wheatstone developed drawings that laid the scientific foundations for 3-D imagery.

The media merged, and 3-D stereoscopic photography was born. And ever since, it has entranced viewers from rock stars to astrophysicists - not to mention rock stars who are astrophysicists, such as Brian May.

May, the former lead guitarist for Queen, holds a doctorate in astrophysics and nurtures an intense interest in stereo photography, the subject of his new book, A Village Lost and Found.

"My career in music was only a hobby - it was always collecting," he said, laughing, by phone from his production company in Windlesham, Surrey, in the United Kingdom. "I was always addicted to this."

May and his coauthor, Elena Vidal, will speak about the book's subject, stereo photographer T.R. Williams, at the Free Library Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. Their work (Frances Lincoln, $60) includes 59 original views, variations, and a stereoscope.

He discovered stereo photography in college. Though he put his science degree on hold while touring with Queen, he still pursued his interest in the antique images, connecting with local collectors and dealers.

May said his fellow band members were generally intrigued.

"They probably thought I was little odd, but then I am a little odd," he said. "Freddy [Mercury], particularly, was very into photography. His great passion was Polaroid, because he was a person of the moment."

Vidal originally trained as a painting and fresco conservator. It wasn't until May showed her a Williams image called "The Hawk and Duckling" that she became hooked.

Ever since, she has been doing some 3-D evangelizing of her own. She described the astonishment of first-time viewers.

"The moment they see a good image in 3-D, you get a reaction that's kind of like 'Ahhhh!' And you know they got it."

"Getting it" is not always immediate. The two images on a stereo card appear identical, but are distinct photos. The camera is moved slightly to the left or right between shots, thus photographing the subject once for each eye.

You look through the lenses of a stereoscope, which presents each eye with its own image. If you try to glance back and forth from right to left, you'll miss the effect completely. But once you relax a bit and look beyond the images, they merge into one, and suddenly you are in the shot.

Philadelphians have several places to see the Victorian technology. The Free Library, the Athenaeum, and the Library Company all have collections that are available to the public. One can visit familiar landmarks and events from more than a hundred years ago: City Hall under construction, the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, an Elks convention parading up Broad Street. 

"Turning the Barley," T.R. Williams, c. 1850 In stereo photography, Brian May found a place where his interests in art and science intersect, but in T.R. Williams he found a kindred spirit whose photos expressed his own respect for nature and concern for overdevelopment.

The focus of the book is a series of slides produced by Williams in the mid-1850s called Scenes in Our Village, in which he used one cutting-edge technology to express a fear of what other cutting-edge technologies were doing to his beloved countryside - a very Romantic concern.

The images of humble country labor - loading the dung cart, turning barley, reaping and grinding grain - are treated with reverence. Each image card is accompanied by a short poem on the flip side. May believes they were written by the photographer.

Yet telling that tale to the masses required the very mechanisms Williams was warning of: factories and industry. For the art to reach the public, the stereo cards had to be mass-produced. The quality of the hand-painted cards varied, Vidal said, from "very bad coloring to excellent, superb coloring."

 May sees parallels between the photographer's ability to balance "art for art's sake and art for an audience" with his own experience in rock music.

"That's where the magic happens," he said. "Because if you stray too far from that line on either side the result is not very useful. If you're doing things purely to get famous or to make money, they tend to be very empty. But on the other side of the line is if you do things purely for art's sake and nobody ever gets to to see them or appreciate them, then you're not using your art as communication - which I believe it should be."

Is stereo photography art? At the time, many considered the approach to be a mere novelty. Only since the 1970s has photography been truly accepted into the realm of high art. Stereographs were often dismissed as toys, and marketed as just that.

Charles Dickens wrote, "The application of photography to the stereoscope produces an extremely pretty toy that is of no use except as an elegant and valuable illustration of a train of scientific reasoning."

To this May responds: "I think Charles Dickens was a very opinionated man. He was very vain, wasn't he? He did a lecture tour of the States like we're about to do. I have a stereograph of him on that tour, and he's looking very proud of himself."

Peter Barberie, curator of photography at Philadelphia Museum of Art, comes down somewhere in the middle of the debate. The museum has very few stereographs, and most of them are of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition from which the museum sprang into being. The reason is that Victorian stereographs were mass-produced, frequently handled and damaged.

However, Barberie points out that many of the surrealists were highly influenced by the medium, no doubt because they grew up with stereographs as Victorian children.

"Man Ray, Lee Miller, and Marcel Duchamp were interested in all kinds of optical toys," the curator said.

One point the curator finds indisputable. "Photo has always been bound up with art and science," he said. "Both the scientific and artistic communities were very excited at its creation. I've always thought that the divorce between science and art is overstated."

Like Williams, May and Vidal turned to technology to make A Village Lost and Found a reality. For more than 150 years the village captured in Scenes in Our Village was believed to be Three Mile Cross near Reading, the home of author Mary Russel Mitford, who described it in her 1819 novel Our Village. The images were possibly thought to be a staged re-creation of village life.

May disagreed. "I had a conviction for many, many years that this was a real document about a real village and real people. But mostly people didn't believe me," he said.

On his website, May placed a picture of No. 1 in the series, a church on the High Street, and pleaded for help. Within 36 hours he had six responses that provided the locale. Three were from Italians who had never even been to England, but managed to find the place online.

They directed him to the village of Hilton Waldrist in Oxfordshire. It was May's most thrilling moment in working on the collection.

"I got in a car and drove down there. It's about two hours from where I live," he said. "And there it was: this wonderful, beautiful church, which I had been staring at for 30 years, was suddenly right in front of me."

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, July 18, 2010

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