Antique stereoviews are your ticket to time travel, and can tell great stories from the past! Looking at a vintage card through your stereoscope, you can step right into the scene and imagine how things must have been for people in a particular era. The popularity of this medium in the 19th and early 20th century now allows us to view history via this immersive medium. This section is devoted to the magic of antique stereo-photographs. Learn all about the do’s and don’ts of collecting antique stereoviews, and building a well curated collection of your own here. We will also periodically share stereoviews that are part of private collections.
written for the stereosite by Jonathan Ross, UK
Michael Burr was one of the most prolific photographers of staged genre stereoviews in the Victorian era. Following in the footsteps of masters like James Elliott and Alfred Silvester and frequently adapting the themes of other popular photographers, this Birmingham based entrepreneur created a catalogue estimated at over 1,000 images during a period from 1862 to the mid 1870s and evidently sold his work in large quantities as there are so many of his stereoviews still surviving.
Like most photographers Burr had his favourite models who make regular appearances in his tableaux, and in the 300 or so of his works in my collection I have identified one who appears over 40 times. Many of the models in genre photography have the appearance of character actors and it would be interesting to find out if any had successful careers on the stage, turning to modelling work when they were ‘resting’. We know that photographers like C.E.Goodman and Martin Laroche photographed actors from current theatre productions and many genre scenes look like stage sets though they were actually constructed in photographers’ studios for the sole purpose of creating stereoviews. However the identity of most of the actors/models in genre scenes remains unknown so I do not have a name to give to the actress who will be the main protagonist of this story. She will just be Our Heroine.
One of her best known roles, and perhaps the most relevant to readers of this article, is as the wife of a stereograph enthusiast who, while her husband is occupied in scrutinising the latest offerings from the travelling stereo salesman, takes the opportunity to flirt with the top-hatted purveyor of 3D delights.
An Optical Delusion – Things seen and Things Not Seen
‘An Optical Delusion – Things seen and Things Not Seen’ card is an early example of a theme that stereoview publishers explored until the turn of the 20th century, promoting the view that travelling salesmen are generally a bad lot and not to be trusted around your womenfolk.
The first image carries a typical Burr label, a small strip pasted to one side of either the back or front of his cards with the title and, just visible here, the word Copyright or Registered. Very few of Burr’s cards have his name on them though occasionally you find one with an M.Burr blindstamp.
I first noticed Michael Burr’s name in a 2003 publication by Tex Treadwell’s Institute for Photographic Research called The English Masters of Genre Stereoviews, but Denis Pellerin and Brian May’s book The Poor Man’s Picture Gallery (which contains a short biography) and the National Stereoscopic Associations listings have opened my eyes to the extent of his output. To begin with I did not value his work as highly as some of his predecessors but it is a considerable achievement.
This variant of An Optical Delusion (an American pirate copy) shows Our Heroine getting a bit more intimate with the slimey salesman and in ‘Where Ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be Wise’ the rustic husband has dropped off in his chair while his wife bids Au Revoir to the salesman, looking like a pantomime villain in his tophat. As always, Burr’s views are filled with enjoyable details, in this case the accoutrements of a country cottage.
At this stage I should say that there is no indication of the sequence in which Burr’s images should be viewed but I have always enjoyed creating a scenario from what were often clearly variants made to maximise the productivity of a day’s work in the studio, and imagining myself behind the camera, directing the actors and rearranging the props.
‘The Cottage Coaxer’ is a case in point. We see the same rustic couple in the same cottage setting but there is no evidence of the stereo salesman’s visit, though the couple have clearly had a row about something and the wife is using her powers of seduction to restore her husband to better humour. This finely tinted copy in excellent condition has a different style of label to the one described above but one that is frequently found on cards produced by Burr and other photographers, so presumably a border that was readily available to printers.
Temptation Tries the Man
The second set of views we are looking at sees Our Heroine still in a humble cottage setting but, initially at least, in the virtuous role of a housewife, dozing in her chair after a morning’s chores. A young admirer has crept in while she slept and appears about to pull off her bonnet.
The title, ‘Temptation Tries the Man’ is set in yet another font but one that is quite familiar from other Burr views.
A second view, with the title ‘The Thief Captured’, sees her admirer at her feet with Our Heroine’s hand in his while she holds up her other hand in a gesture which seems to say, channelling Beyoncé “Put a ring on it”.
A variant of the view, on an unusual yellow mount, has the young man on his knees while Our Heroine is standing with a coy gesture but a rather pleased expression on her face. Perhaps the offer of a ring was forthcoming?
Both these last two images have labels in another style with a plain sans serif font.
The next three stereographs, all with the title ‘Family Jars’, which presumably means a row or what the British police call a “Domestic”, show Our Heroine in the same rather run down cottage setting, which is now in a hell of a mess, fending off a man in a carpenter’s hat with just a brush and a pair of bellows as he pokes his head through the door, an evil expression on his face and a sort of cudgel in his hand. She has the kitchen table tilted against the door to keep him out.
The man, incidentally, is played by the same actor who the travelling salesman in the first view of this story was hoping to make a cuckold of.
In the next view the man is through the door but his wife has the better of him and he is flat on his back, tangled up in the table, as she keeps him down with her broom, shaking her fist at him as if to say “Don’t try that again, Buster!” He holds up his hand submissively in admission of defeat.
In the last Family Jars variant, the couple are reconciled and Our Heroine offers her miscreant husband a glass of stout while he, with his leg up on her knee, smiles back, glad the ruction is over.
A differently titled image, of the same actors in the same setting, is ‘After a Storm cometh a Calm’, and needs no further explanation.
‘Curiosity Punished’ is the title of the next three stereographs, showing Our Heroine and a female companion in slightly nicer surroundings – at least the plaster isn’t falling off the walls — but being pestered by a young fellow who can’t restrain the urge to get a look at the girls in their déshabille. Men tend to come off the worse in their encounters with Burr’s women and this foolish chap is about to get a soaking.
In the second variant, Our Heroine has the intruder’s head trapped in the door and he doesn’t look at all happy about it. Her booted foot is up against her friend’s chair to give her extra force and the crinoline she is holding looks like it could make a useful net to catch the fool in.
In the third variant, curiosity may not have killed the cat but it certainly got this chap a good pasting. Our Heroine is whacking him with a hairbrush with one hand while the other has a hold of his hair. Her companion is poised to tip a jug of cold water over him too. “That’ll teach you to spy on us!”
‘Rustic Foot Bath’ was the name of a popular stereoview first published under the name of Phiz (the pseudonym of Alfred Silvester) c.1858 and reconstructed almost exactly by Michael Burr later, as was his wont. In Burr’s version Our Heroine rocks the same sort of off the shoulder look as in ‘Curiosity Punished’ and has the same female companion as in that series only this time her friend is en travesti, playing the role of a romantic musician, serenading his lady love. In the Phiz version both parts are also played by women but I don’t think there was any Sapphic suggestion intended, just an excuse to show some bare ladies’ legs.
In a variant of the image Our Heroine has her arm around the musician’s shoulders and is gazing at ‘him’ with an adoring look.
Burr, like other Genre photographers, was not one to waste a good set on a single image. After all quite a lot must have been invested in building the scenery, not to mention hiring the costumes and paying the actors. So in the following view, Rustic Music becomes ‘Rustic Foot Bath’ and Our Heroine strikes a rather more raunchy pose, breaking the forth wall with a Fleabag style glance at the viewer and the suggestion that it is not just her feet she is about to wash — her top might be coming off at any moment.
Our Heroine also appears déshabillé in an image entitled simply ‘Evening’ in which she poses with a watering can and some severely dehydrated pot plants.
Love Below Stairs
In the “Love Below Stairs” series we see her in the role of a domestic servant at a time when followers were not allowed. In other words if you were someone’s cook or housekeeper you were not permitted to entertain gentlemen callers. In this nice sepia stereograph called ‘The Surprise’, Our Heroine is concealing a man under the kitchen table, having heard her mistress approaching. He is hoping that the little dog does not give the game away, while she is giving us a look as if to say “Don’t breathe a word!”
In a rather grubby variant, the man is discovered and it looks as though the dog is to blame. Our Heroine knows she is in trouble.
Her mistress sends him packing though he twirls his moustache defiantly. Our Heroine’s pleas are to no avail.
In ‘Domestic Difficulties’ we see her Upstairs in her employers’ breakfast room, clearly involved in some kind of altercation with her mistress, while the man of the house cautions her from behind a raised newspaper. We may assume that he and she have been carrying on and perhaps she feels secure in her position? The pale green mount and the cropping of the images suggest that this is a pirated view.
In this finely tinted variant we see Our Heroine begging her master for help while he denies everything and his wife shakes her fist in rage. We can see that Wifey has snatched off her servant’s cap and is holding it in her left hand. Perhaps it was of too fine a quality for a housekeeper and may have been a gift from her master?
In the final variant of Domestic Difficulties Our Heroine is ordered out of the house, but her master is giving us a look as if to say “Oh well, it was worth it!”. He is slipping her something, which I assume is some money, and she doesn’t look too put out.
The male character is once again played by the Michael Burr regular who you may recognise as the rustic stereo enthusiast we met earlier and the beleaguered carpenter in Family Jars
What are you all looking at?
Out on the street, Our Heroine joins a crowd with her female companion from Curiosity Punished and a little black boy I recognise from other Burr views. The title of the view is ‘What are you all Looking at?’
To which the answer, according to Ray Norman from worldofstereoviews.com is Donati’s Comet. “First observed on 2 June 1858 from Florence Observatory. Throughout 1858 the comet increased in brilliance until it was closest to Earth on 10 October. It was the first comet to be photographed and was the most brilliant object in the night sky in the 19thcentury.”
Our Heroine was not confined to playing rustic types or domestic servants and in the next two views we can see her as a lady of fashion on the streets of London in her splendid crinoline. ‘Art in ’60 – Your Likeness & A Shave 6D’ (sixpence) gives us an insight to the photography studios of the time with street hawkers touting for business and enterprising tradesmen like this barber offering photographic portraits in the same premises that you might visit for a shave. The sign above the window reads “Portrait Saloon and Easy Shaving Shop”, with one beside it announcing “A Little Likeness & a Shave 6D!!! Ladies the Same, With Crinolines Extra” (though I imagine they were not offering to shave any ladies! We can see some stereoviews displayed in the shop window and in frames outside, alongside portrait photographs in other formats. The hawker has some more portraits in a frame hanging from his neck and there is a sign on the ground which reads “Stop!!! The Latest Out. Crinolines Done Outside.”
In the first view we can see the barber/photographer in the door of his business with a camera on a tripod and a dark slide in one hand with the other raised as if to say “Hold it!” Our Heroine is seated with a little dog on her lap, watching with amusement as the hawker and a delivery boy (played by the young black actor we saw in the crowd scene) trade insults.
In a variant of the scene we can see that hawkers are persistent types as Our Heroine appears to be declining his sales pitch but he is not prepared to take No for an answer. He has grabbed the hem of her crinoline to stop her moving off, in the process revealing her petticoats. The photographer and the delivery boy are finding the whole performance quite funny.
Still dressed in her fashionable crinoline and accompanied by her little dog, Our Heroine next appears in a series called ‘Crinoline Difficulties’, with alternative titles ‘The Dangers and Perplexities of Crinoline’ or just ‘The Dangers of Crinoline’. All the variants involve her having problems getting through a narrow gateway and variously coming a cropper.
This first one has been in the wars a bit but it is the only one I have seen with the tophatted and monocled gent looking on. It has a W. H. Mason of Brighton blindstamp, as do quite a few cards in my collection, leading to the conclusion that Mason was a retailer and possibly not a photographer himself.
In this one a young labourer is leaning on his shovel and looking on. He has either offered to help or has made some wisecrack about her crinoline but, either way, Our Heroine is fending him off.
However, as we know, Pride Comes Before a Fall and her crinoline catches on the gatepost and brings her crashing to the ground. She will be glad of the young labourer’s help now.
Unobserved she does no better. That crinoline is just not going to let her get through unscathed.
The storyline certainly serves as a good excuse to show a lot of lacy underwear and provocative amounts of ankle.
This one comes with the title ‘A Stylish Affair’. Our Heroine is well and truly in a pickle and her poor little dog can do nothing to help. Down she comes with a crash again.
There is nothing left to do put pick herself up, see if she can fix her crinoline and hope she hasn’t sprained her ankle!
Crinolines were most definitely a gift to photographers and artists with a sense of humour but Our Heroine would doubtless have been glad to take hers off at the end of the day’s shoot.
A series called ‘The Elopement’ sees her in the guise of a young lady running away from her boarding school with her lover, a sailor. The first image has the title ‘Is He Coming?’.
She hears him call to her and lets down a rope ladder in readiness for her escape. Her possessions in a bundle and a box tied up with string.
She begins her descent and her lover follows after, holding her wrist to make sure she is safe and carrying her bundle for her. In my opinion Our Heroine looks more suited to playing the proprietor of a boarding school than one of the pupils but we can allow Burr a little theatrical license in casting his favourite model once again.
Unfortunately the course of true love never did run smooth and Burr casts the same couple in a view entitled ‘The Sailor’s Adieu’. He is still wearing his sailor’s uniform while she seems to have walked into a melodrama from another era and is dressed in a corseted velvet gown with a tiara on her head. Our Heroine stands disconsolate, her eyes down cast, a handkerchief ready to wipe away her tears, while her sailor boy waves goodbye. He probably has a girl in every port. A chessboard on the table shows the game is over. This scene may have nothing to do with the Elopement series and may well just be an example of Burr making use of two of his actors while they were around, but it is irresistible to try to make the connection.
Some time ago I acquired the following image of Our Heroine looking rather like The Queen with an anxious expression, transplanted into some papier maché cave, and when I saw that the card was titled simply ‘Fear’, I didn’t know what to make of it.
However the following two cards, acquired later, have the title ‘Haidee and Juan, Canto 2nd’, which denotes a scene from Lord Byron’s poem ‘Don Juan’.
The eponymous hero Juan has survived a shipwreck and is cared for in a cave by a pirate’s daughter Haidée.
Our Heroine looks rather grandly dressed but I suppose if you have a tiara it‘s a shame not to wear it. It appears that the pirate is also a slave trader so perhaps in the ‘Fear’ image Haidée is frightened that he will find out that she has been sheltering Juan. Who knows?
Anyway, I have now shared most of the images of this anonymous actress from my collection of Michael Burr stereographs with you and would like to end with one with this simple title:
It shows Our Heroine isolated in a cave, but dressed to kill and holding onto her anchor of Hope — which seems like quite an inspirational image for The Time of Covid, while writing from London during a period of Tier 4 Lockdown.
I hope to find more images of her in days to come and maybe to discover her name. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this story.
Jonathan Ross (London, UK)
Jonathan Ross began to take an interest in stereo photography after a decade of working with holography. He helped establish the first European gallery of holography,the short-lived The Hologram Place, in 1978 and his production company SEE 3, was one of the pioneers of embossed holography, now ubiquitous in the fields of security printing and packaging. He sold SEE 3 in 1990 and began collecting holography and other 3D imaging techniques, documenting his acquisitions on the Jonathan Ross Hologram Collection website. In 1998 he opened Gallery 286 in his London home on Earl’s Court Road and has had a continuous exhibition programme of contemporary art and holography since then in addition to curating exhibitions of holography internationally.
Websites: www.gallery286.com, www.jrholocollection.com
written for the stereosite by Thomas Asch, Switzerland
What to do in 2020, these difficult times for passionate collectors? There are no local collectors’ fairs and also trips to cities with promising flea markets are not possible. I try to adapt, deepen my knowledge of individual stereo photographs of my collection and go hunting for new collectibles more often online. On various platforms such as ebay I am looking for new rarities in my field of passion: stereoscopy.
Recently a major lot of Tissues was offered in an online auction that caught my eye. Of the several dozen cards on offer, only 3 were fully displayed, while the others were only seen in a pile next to it.
From the description, which was kept very brief, you could only speculate on the quality of the other “hidden” cards, but the offer appealed to me. I trusted in my collecting instincts and decided to bid. At the last minute I drove the price up a little and in the end I won the auction. An indescribable moment for the collector on the hunt… After that the long days of waiting followed until the cards finally arrived in the mail.
But just looking at a few cards gave me the certainty: A very fruitful acquisition! A large variety of topics and the condition almost consistently good!
What is a “Tissue”?
Before I show a few examples of the cards, I would like to briefly highlight the special features of the “Tissues”. Tissues are black and white photos copied on very thin paper, which appears almost transparent. The back of these thin photos was more or less artistically colored, i.e. painted with colors, so that when looking at them against a light source the photo is presented in color. A tissue is structured like a sandwich. A frame in the front and the back. In between the from behind colored photo and another protective tissue paper.
Now to some examples out of the purchased bundle:
Sometimes the scenery of the photo is submerged in a completely different light by the special coloration of the back side. As an example observe the day / night Tissues. One of these is this stereo picture of the Place de la Concorde in Paris. (This is composed of two shots taken one after the other.)
If you hold the card up against the light, the scene appears as a night shot with a full moon and artistic, filigree lighting of the square.
In addition to the colored back side every single lamp was marked with a fine needle prick to allow light to shine through the paper. An enormous effort to produce the individual cards.
These stereos with an unexpected visual effect when backlit are called “surprise Tissues “. I will show two more examples later.
But to stay in Paris, I’ll show two examples from the “Les Théâtrales de Paris” series. These are recreated scenes from then-current performances on the Parisian theater stages. For natural photos, there was simply too little light in the theater itself.
First two scenes from “Voyage dans la Lune” after Jules Verne, which was performed in 1875 in the Théâtre de la Gaîté.
Then two scenes from “Cendrillon” based on a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, performed in the Théâtre Impeérial du Chatelet.
What is remarkable about the “Le Lac d’Azur” card is the elaborately “built-in” rain through very fine cuts in the left part of the stereo picture with astonishing effect when viewed stereoscopically.
Card by card I enjoy immersing myself in the illustrations to embrace the detailed contents of each image, to classify them in time, as well as to determine their origin. At that time it was uncommon to name the photographer specifically on the card itself.
Sometimes chance can help you. This time it was a recent talk by Denis Pellerin, in which he showed a subject assigned to the Gaudin Frères that, in a slightly different variant, was also found on one of the acquired cards. So I had the crucial clue regarding the photographer.
On another card with a street scene, on closer inspection, you can see the same house facade as in Fig. 12 as a backdrop. Hence the legitimate assumption that this photo was also created by the Gaudin Frères.
I have not yet been able to assign all of the other Tissues. For example: According to the frame of the following stereo photo with the boys in uniform, playing leapfrog, the card was distributed by Adolphe Block. But who is the photographer? Is he hiding behind the embossed initials Ch. D. in the lower left corner of the frame?
Researching such images is very entertaining and sometimes takes me a long way away from the starting point. It’s not uncommon to come across information that leads to a completely different card in your collection.
The Whole World
The virtual journey through this collection led me not only to Paris, but also to other wonderful cities like here, thanks to this special night illusion, to Milano …
… and even as far as Rio de Janeiro …
This preoccupation with Victorian photographs is an extremely exciting activity in times of orderly calm and opens many unknown windows into bygone worlds directly from one’s sofa.
Sometimes, however, all you need to do is to put a bright light on the back of a card to be able to enjoy a very surprising scene on a Tissue.
The cards of this recent purchase will keep me busy for a while and are a wonderful addition to my collection.
Thomas Asch (Zürich, Switzerland)
The Collector: In the early 1980s I found at a flea market a bundle of Viewmaster reels with a viewer and this was the spark for enthusiastic collecting of stereoscopy until today. My collection consists of stereo cards, Viewmaster and of course “hardware” such as Stereoscopes and Cameras.
The Photographer: In 1983 I bought a Revere from the 50s as my first Stereocamera and shortly after that a View Master Personal Camera to begin creating my own stereo photography. Main stereo subjects in the following years were my family and travel photos on various trips. After my retirement from an IT job, five years ago, my activities and pretensions as stereo photographer broadened significantly.
written for the stereosite by Ian Ference
My interest in stereography is primarily informed by two things – my background as a photographer, and historic studies of the Great War. For this reason, I have amassed quite a few stereoscopic negatives from ~1914–1921. The image I am using for the practical demonstration is designated “FasserNeg56”, a part of the Alexander Otto Fasser Collection, the most impressive and important of the many amateur Great War stereography collections in the Boyd/Jordan/Ference Collection. It depicts a Nieuport 10 sesquiplane being worked on by the crew, and has a corresponding positive that you can view on my personal blog. Needless to say, it is of great historic importance, as are the other 136 negatives in this particular set.
Your interest may be elsewhere. While the images used in this article are of the war, and from the Fasser collection, the techniques are universal. Whether your interest is in travel stereoscopy, 3D erotica, or macro stereoviews, the theory and practice described below apply equally well to all single-substrate stereoscopic negatives.
Stereoscopic negatives are, by nature of their creation, trickier dragons to conquer than are those made by traditional two-dimensional cameras. They are vicious chimeras, products of distinct photographic and stereographic processes, and difficult to tame, especially when we talk of those in European-style. What do I mean by “European-style”? Simply that both parts of the stereo pair appear on the same substrate – usually glass. American and British stereographers often used large-format cameras to produce paper cards. These cameras would create two negatives, one for each taking lens. These are not difficult at all to print (or digitize). For the remainder of this article, I will be referring to European-style single glass negatives. The theory, of course, also applies to celluloid negatives.
Most sample scans of negatives made by sellers on auction sites are abjectly terrible. The above image represents a better-than-average attempt to digitize a stereoscopic negative, made by my late friend Doug Jordan. However, as you examine it, you should be struck by three problems. Most obviously, the exposure is terrible – you don’t even need to attempt to view the image to see that! Next, upon attempting to parallel view the scene, you’ll notice that you cannot – it will either appear flat or cause eye-strain. The panels are reversed, and it appears as if it were a cross-view image! This is not correct. Finally, upon careful study, you might think that the soldiers standing about the mortar are wearing their medals backwards. They aren’t – each panel is actually a mirror image, and the entire stereoview is flipped horizontally! From the same negative, a decade later, I created the following digital version, without much pain or effort:
In addition to proper exposure in “developing” the digital negative – an analogue to the darkroom concepts of exposing, using contrast filters, choosing a developer, etc – knowledge of how lenses work, and application of that knowledge to the more complex stereographic setting, allows me to quickly and easily flip the entire “digital print” horizontally and then exchange the panels to create a nice representation of what I perceive as the original photographer’s intent. Keep in mind that this involves some artistic interpretation on my part – just like real darkroom work! But once ones grasps the theory intuitively, putting it into practice makes digitizing stereo negatives more exciting than digitizing stereo positives. Instead of being a pain in the arse, it’s an opportunity to exercise creativity and decision making in interpreting the negative into a final work. To the end of making this accessible to everybody, I will first discuss the theory behind creating stereoscopic negatives, before addressing the practice of properly digitizing them.
Your eyes are lenses. What hits the back of your eye is an upside-down representation of what you are seeing; your visual cortex steps in and sorts it for you. You may not know this, but camera lenses do the same thing. Because many people prefer digital photography these days, you may not have strips of negatives lying around to proof that effect. So I will demonstrate with a silly little cartoon drawn by my wonderful wife Stacey.
After developing a negative, you’ll wind up with a piece of glass (or celluloid) which looks like this:
You can then make a contact print from the negative, with the emulsion side of the negative facing the emulsion side of the printing substrate (usually paper or glass). This has the effect of again inverting the darks to lights, as well as the effect of reversing the image – which faithfully reproduces the scene:
Now all you must do is take the print in front of you and rotate it 180º and voila! – a faithful representation of the scene. Our penguin, igloo, and snowman are all in their right place. Following from this, you might think that the same process should work on a stereoscopic negative. If you go into your darkroom and try it, you will get a disappointing result similar to the first scan shown in this article, though not identical:
Two of the flaws of the initial image are still apparent: the exposure is terrible and the panels are reversed.So what of the third flaw – why is it not the case that on the contact print, the entire stereoview is flipped horizontally? The answer is simple: Contact printing is not analogous to making transparency scans on modern scanners. In making a contact print, or enlarging, the image is naturally horizontally reversed. This makes up for the inversion of the image. Scanning is predicated on making an isomorphic representation of the physical object. This is why emulsion-side-down diapositive scans look just like the original transparency – and why scans of negatives are always reversed.
However, we still need to address the transposition of the panels – why the heck does neither a contact print nor a digital scan produce a proper stereoscopic image, free-viewable in parallel or in more detail through a scope? The answer to this goes back to the notion of the fact that the European-style stereoscopic negatives under consideration consist of two images on a single substrate. Let’s consider our silly penguin cartoon again – but this time, let’s consider photographing it with a glass-plate stereoscopic camera. Let’s presume that the penguin is at the zero plane, the igloo is closer to us (negative parallax), and the snowman is farther away from us (positive parallax). What we want is to obtain a stereoview that looks like this:
But let’s see what happens when we load up a glass plate and click the shutter:
Both images are taken simultaneously, and the light creates a stereoscopic negative on our single glass plate:
Wait a minute – it says “right panel” on the left, and “left panel” on the right? Worry not that your sanity is slipping away, dear reader. What we’re looking at here is the emulsion side of the negative. What the left lens saw is on the right; what the right hand lens saw is on the left. Visualize yourself standing in front of a stereoscopic camera and this should intuitively make sense. If you’re thinking that this might have something to do with the image transposition discussed above, you’re on the right track. But to demonstrate, we’ll go ahead and make a contact print from this negative, rotated 180º as we would with a flat negative:
Uh-oh! This doesn’t look like the above stereoview, and for a very salient reason: in rotating it so that the figures appear upright, we have placed the exposure made by the left-hand lens on the right, and the image made by the right-hand lens on the left. This is the reason that many stereoviews (positives) printed by amateurs from single glass plates appear to be slightly misaligned – they are! One side would have to be printed off the opposite side of the negative, and then the other, each while the positive plate was half-masked. Now that we understand the processes by which stereoscopic negatives are created, we can hopefully better appreciate that although it takes a bit more work, we can make amazing digital recreations from the negatives in the “digital darkroom”.
What follows is an examination of the process I use in creating the best possible digital positives from stereoscopic negatives. It must be noted that, as with most things in digitization (as well as the traditional darkroom), your mileage may vary as regards available equipment and tools (software) – and that one’s own individual aesthetic can come into play heavily when processing from a negative. As stated previously, a negative has far more data than a positive – and therefore, is far more open to interpretation when printing or digitizing it. The process of scanning a positive is a study in creating as close to a reproduction of the original work as is possible. The process of creating a digital positive from a scan of a negative is an interpretive process. My own aesthetic is to create true B&W works from B&W negatives, unless I have a corresponding positive that shows the photographer’s intent to tone or tint the image. But it all starts with the scan.
For most positive scans, it is sufficient to scan directly to JPEG or TIFF format – minor alterations can of course be made, but generally you’re just looking for an accurate reproduction of what is already established. However, negatives are far more silver-dense than are positives. In this dense silver, there is a lot more data. That’s why it is essential to use software that can scan to the Adobe DNG (digital negative) format, because this is the only current format that adequately represents the amount of data contained in the density of a negative. I prefer SilverFast, an inexpensive and powerful software bundle that allows direct use of the scanner bed in “transparency – glass” mode:
SilverFast also offers the option of multipass scanning – that is to say, taking two passes over the negative to capture maximal detail – which is another option not offered by the lousy software bundle that’s usually delivered with a scanner. In any case, the most essential aspect of any scanning software is its ability to create Adobe DNG files. Once you have picked a software product, it’s time for the fun to begin. Here’s my workflow, in order:
- Clean the negative and scanner bed. This may seem like a no-brainer, but most glass slides purchased from online auctions, estate sales, and so on are at least somewhat dirty. Pure water (not tap!) can be used on the clear side of the glass, by application with a microfiber cloth. On the emulsion side, a dry cloth is preferable, but a little water vapor from breathing can come in handy with tough dirt / smoke damage. Always err on the side of caution. Also make sure your scanner bed is clean and free of dust; a blower bulb can be your best friend.
- Place the negative emulsion-side down and make a preview scan. If you’re not using a scanner/software combo that allows for placement directly on the scanner bed, you may have to use a holder to hold your negative. These are often problematic, as the image area of a negative can cover an entire plate and thus be blocked by the holder; when possible, use the direct scan method. In any case, use preview scans to select the image area and make sure that, upon eyeballing it, the slide appears to have 0.1º or less variance from being completely straight. Every major action performed after the image is in your editing software – such as unnecessary rotations to correct for sloppy scanning – only degrades image quality.
- Double-check your settings. Accidentally scanning to the wrong folder or with the wrong image name only causes headaches. But much more importantly, make sure you’re utilizing the entire Adobe RGB color space (more on why you should scan B&W negatives in color later), and scanning at a high enough resolution. I recommend 4800 ppi if possible, multipass to DNG in 48 bit color.
- Check your environment. If someone in the flat above you is thumping their bass, you’re running appliances which create vibrations (air conditioners, loud phonographs, old hard drives on the same table), and so on, you’re liable to get a lesser-quality result.
- Hit the scan button. You’ll probably have to wait 15+ minutes for the result. Don’t forget to check each scan before removing the slide from the scanner – it might be the case that you need to rescan for any number of reasons. Best to make sure you have a good base scan before cleaning and placing your next slide!
And that’s it – you should now have a DNG file that looks altogether unlike the original negative. But don’t worry about that; in our next step, you can make it look like the original negative if you want – but you’ll probably want to improve on it. One of the few upsides to modern technology is that it’s much easier to improve on a dodgy negative by making a digital negative and properly processing it. At the very least, it wastes less photographic paper!
Although it is common parlance in the digital world to refer to processing a digital negative as “developing” the file, this is rather silly – you are already working on a negative that was developed before you were born. Much better to refer to it as processing in my opinion. But I digress. This is the step where you do most of the fundamental work of making the image look nice – that is to say, correcting the bad exposure that we identified as one of the three major flaws of most negative scans. Most stereoscopic negatives are scanned direct to JPEG or TIFF. Our interim step allows you to do things that you can do in the darkroom – but instead of dictating that you want greater edge acutance by using Agfa Rodinal instead of Ilford ID11, you slide a little slider bar to the right.
In order to process a DNG file, you’re going to need software. I use Adobe Photoshop CS6; others prefer Adobe Lightroom after I convinced him into scanning to DNG. There are generally somewhat inferior free products available as well. The aforementioned Adobe products are easily obtained in certain fashions, but doing so is outside the scope of this article. In any case, I will be using Photoshop for purposes of explaining my workflow; feel free to try the product of your choice and experiment – that’s half the fun anyhow, is it not?
This is what FasserNeg56 looks like when opened in CS6:
And when opened in Photoshop, and inverted (Command‑I):
Not too impressive, but rather characteristic of what you get if you don’t put in the work in editing. Did I mention yet that you’ll be learning to edit in reverse? You will. But that’s not as daunting as it sounds, if it sounds daunting at all – those who are still nostalgic about their time in the darkroom are probably looking forward to it, for though the smell of fixer is not present, the adventure of injecting oneself into an image certainly is. Those sliders you saw above, and the ones on the other panels – these are your “digital darkroom” tools. Exposure is analogous to the amount of light you use when enlarging or making a contact print. Contrast is the overall contrast of the image, whereas Clarity is similar to edge acutance – the contrast at border regions between light and dark.
In any case, the best means of becoming experienced in the use of these newfangled sliders is by playing around with them – much like experimenting in a traditional darkroom! It took me dozens of tries to get what I wanted out of the first stereoscopic negative I scanned; by my 20th I was getting it in one or two attempts. You learn to previsualize what will come out the other side using this trial-and-error method, much as when you learned photography, you learned to previsualize how a given scene would look with whatever lens and film you were shooting. My final sliders for this image look like this:
With the end product (having been inverted) looking like this:
Is this the correct exposure, contrast, balance, et cetera? There is no answer to this question; even though a positive exists for this image, we don’t know that it was how the photographer (known to be Alexander Otto Fasser) wanted the image printed. As an American in Neuilly, it it far more probable that he had the plates developed and printed by a Parisian pro lab than that he took time away from his surgical duties to do darkroom work himself. Thus, this particular print is my interpretation of Fasser’s negative, and can’t be otherwise. And this is one of the little-known (these days) joys of working with the negatives of another – one may, or indeed must, inject themselves into the creative process. Once you’ve refined your own creative process, you’ll be ready for the final steps to prepare a pleasing parallel-viewable positive for digital display or printing.
So now we have a proper exposure at high resolution; we have overcome one of the three major obstacles discussed in the introduction. With Photoshop, GIMP, or another software project, we can complete the final three steps. The first step is simple – flip the slide horizontally:
Only one problem to go! But first we must account for the slide’s oxidation. The second step is somewhat more complex, and may vary depending on the software product you are using. Remember that we scanned to 48-bit color space, instead of simply making a greyscale scan. This has left the oxidized silver on the inverted image appearing as a blue/cyan fog over parts of the image – usually the periphery. In Photoshop, using the “Black & White” function in “Adjustments” brings up the following menu:
And the cyan and blue sliders can be used to achieve a tonal match with the rest of the image, whereas a straight greyscale scan would not have allowed this! This can also be achieved in any number of other ways, including in the DNG processing stage. I chose this method because it is simplest to demonstrate; all that matters is that whatever means you use, you remove as much of the visible oxidation as is possible. We are only one step away from creating a final image that we can be proud of. We must now do the third step – swapping panels and cropping. This is simple to do in any image editing software; I will share my Photoshop workflow, but you may follow whatever makes logical sense to you – just don’t do anything to compress the image! I start out by selecting the entire image area, copying it, and opening a new document (which uses the pixel dimensions of the original, and will use whichever color I choose for the interstitial area between panels). I then copy what appears to be the right-hand side of the scan, and paste it into the left side of the new document:
Note that I carefully moved the newly transposed panel until all of the central overlap area was covered – this does mean a tiny amount of image loss, but that is more than made up for in creating a pleasant viewing experience. I then copy-paste the left-hand panel from the scan into the right side of the new document, and simply crop off the overlap area. Then I flatten the image, and am left with:
Of course, there is more that one can do to improve on this image. But retouching stereoviews is a topic for another article; suffice it to say that practicing these techniques and workflow allows one to process numerous stereoscopic negatives in an hour, rather than spending hours on each. There are a number of other things I could include here; for example, during the transposition step, it is very easy to paste the second panel on top of the first, deselect the red channel on that layer, and instantly have a pleasing anaglyph. If this makes intuitive sense to you, then you might wish to add it to your workflow, but for brevity’s sake I discluded it from this article.
It is a shame that the mid-century pivot away from stereography (View-Master and Realist aside) has left a knowledge gap that has rendered most digitized stereoscopic negatives ill-exposed, transposed, and backwards. Most archives do not have a specialist capable of creating proper parallel representations, and thus many are listed in finding aids but obnoxiously unavailable for viewing. Those archives that do digitize their negatives sometimes get the exposure right, but rarely properly flip and transpose, leading to the appearance of flatness and backwards imagery. Readers who come from professional archival backgrounds should be able to quickly improve their skillsets, and thus improve the quality of digital representations on their archives’ webpages.
Many stereoscopic negatives linger on auction sites for months or years; it is likely that the overwhelming majority of these negatives have no corresponding positive still extant, and thus are basically “lost artifacts”. But things once lost can again be found, and hopefully this article will inspire some readers to seek out stereoscopic negatives within their field of interest, digitize them, and make them available to the public. Not only is this a public good, in that it helps to preserve history, but it is a much more fun and creative process than merely digitizing positives. Just refrain from bidding against me when it comes to negatives portraying the Great War!
For those of you who were intrigued by the theories behind the creation of stereoscopic negatives and how that impacts their digital processing, there are further venues of exploration available. In terms of theory of analog photography, lighting, lens function, lens aberrations and coatings, and darkroom technique, I highly recommend Aaron Sussman’s The Amateur Photographer’s Handbook. The title might include ‘amateur’, but the sheer volume of information readily approaches the entirety of some of my comrades’ BA programs. Mine is an 8th edition, published in 1973, and handed down to me by my father. I’m sure other editions are equally wonderful. And for those with any questions or who wish to discuss any of this subject matter further, please reach out by email: email@example.com.
Ian Ference (Crown Heights, Brooklyn)
I have been “into” stereography for the last 30 of my 39 years; for the last ten I have been a serious collector. In 2018, I put my love of sharing knowledge into action when I launched my blog, Brooklyn Stereography. When my closest friend and collecting partner Doug Jordan passed away in January 2020, I accepted stewardship of the Boyd/Jordan/Ference Collection. I hope be able to add to and grow the collection, including a permanent endowment for the online entity, before my own demise. Most of my 3D efforts are put into maintaining and building this collection, and into researching Great War stereography in general. Secondary areas of specialization within historic stereography include Raumbild-Verlag and VistaScreen, among others.
Websites: brooklynstereography.com, greatwarin3d.org