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Photography History Spotlight: Stereographs

Photography History Spotlight: Stereographs

Stereographs are a unique photography format, allowing for a one-of-a-kind viewing experience. We have a variety of stereograph images in our collection and continue to add new images regularly. As multiple photography formats were used to create stereotypes, our collection includes sepia toned stereographs, as well as black and white.

Origins of Stereoscopy

Charles Wheatstone, a British scientist, published a paper in 1838 that described an illusion he had discovered. The illusion was this: if you drew two pictures of the same subject from two slightly different perspectives and viewed each one through a different eye, your brain would create a three-dimensional view of the picture. He then created a table-size device to help demonstrate this effect. The device had a viewer that sent a unique image to each eye, and this device became the first stereoscope.

Refinement & Further Development

A photograph showing a stereograph viewer with several stereograph cards

A decade after Wheatstone’s original stereoscope, another scientist named David Brewster further refined the device, creating a smaller, hand-held device that one could hold up to their eyes. The user inserted a card with stereo images and could then view that image in 3D. With the recent invention of photography, Brewster’s stereoscope could display images of the world, rather than just simple drawings. 

The hand-held stereoscope was further refined by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1861. Holmes developed a simplified version that could be made cheaply. He chose to not patent his design, and this sparked a stereography boom in the US, as firms produced thousands of stereoscopes with Holmes’ design. 

Public Popularity 

Stereo daguerreotypes were first exhibited to the general public in 1851 at the London International Exhibition. American photographers began making stereographs shortly after this event. 

Both amateur photographers and publishing firms alike were making stereographs by 1860. Many publishers sold their views via mail orders, door-to-door salesman, and in brick and mortar stores. 

Many middle-class families in the late 19th century were collecting stereographs. Collectors would purchase stereographs that depicted locations they had visited, as well as more far-away locales that they would likely only experience through the stereoscope. During this time, viewing stereoscopes was akin to watching television today, and they were also commonly used in classrooms as a teaching tool. 

Stereograph Image of Brooklyn Bridge

Stereograph Format

The term stereograph does not refer to a single photographic process, but rather the final format. The stereograph is produced by placing two images side by side, typically mounted onto a card. Most commonly these images were created using a camera that featured two side-by-side lenses. These lenses were 2.5 inches apart, allowing the two exposures to be made at the same time. 

Mediums Used

Many different photographic processes were used to produce stereographs, including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and glass plates. Any medium can be used to create stereographs, as long as two side-by-side exposures can be taken simultaneously. Stereographs are still made today, using more modern photography techniques. 

Stereographs in our Collection

We have a number of stereograph images in our collection. You can view these images here. If there's a specific subject matter you'd like us to try to find a stereograph image of, let us know!

Stereograph of Female Photographer

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