Cheesy British horror anthologies occupy a soft spot in my heart — along with cheesy Italian horror anthologies; cheesy Japanese horror anthologies; cheesy Korean horror anthologies; and… oh, who am I kidding? My heart is big enough and soft enough to accommodate the entire spectrum of 20th century genre cinema.
The point, however, is that sometimes an assemblage of short schlocky silliness is just what the doctor ordered — were I lucky enough to have such a doctor. And if this is true for genre cinema, perhaps it’s true for genre blogs — which I guess is what ULTRAsomething is… though I’ve never really been able to classify its precise genre.
So with this in mind, I decided to craft ULTRAsomething’s next three articles as if they were vignettes in an overarching theme — a theme that, when all three entries were combined, would be about the length of a typical article.
Well, that didn’t happen. This — the first so-called “vignette” — was supposed to clock in at about one-third the length of a typical essay. Instead, it wound up being twice the length. Fortunately, I’m nothing if not adaptable, so instead of calling this next series of three articles an “anthology,” I’m calling it a “trilogy.” Problem solved.
Semantics aside, the thematic structure of the trilogy remains the same as the anthology. Each of the next three articles, whatever their length, will revolve around a different camera — and when I say “different,” I mean “utterly inconsistent with modern visual tastes or with 21st century photo dissemination techniques.” Each camera is a folly unto itself, and each will make you (and me) question whether I harbour some hidden desire to burn my web stats to the ground.
On with the show!
Our first folly is the Kodak Stereo camera from the mid-1950’s.
It’s a rather unorthodox looking box of brown bakelite — the sort of thing that invites unsolicited commentary from total strangers. For this reason, toting the camera on a photo walk requires allocating extra time for the inevitable conversations it provokes. I discovered this on my very first outing, when I ducked into the local grocery, and quickly found myself engaged in the following conversation:
Clerk: “Is that a real camera?”
Clerk: “Does it work?”
Clerk: “It looks so weird.”
Me: “It’s a stereo camera. That’s why there are two lenses.”
Clerk: “Oh, so it’s a radio.”
Me: “No, it’s a camera. By stereo I mean it takes 3D photos.”
Clerk: “Like in a circle?”
Me: “No. It takes images that look 3-dimensional, as if they had depth.”
Clerk: “I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
Me (in my mind): ‘Of course you haven’t. It predates social media.’
Curiously, she was only the first of three that week, who asked if it was a “real camera.” I’ll admit, I’m as confused about why someone would ask this, as they are about why I’d sling such a thing over my shoulder.
Had I more time (or had they enough interest), I could have explained that the camera’s two lenses are separated by a distance equivalent to that which separates our eyes. One press of the shutter captures two simultaneous images on film — distinguished only by the parallax shift inherent with such separation. When these images are combined in some special way, or viewed side-by-side with (or without) the aid of a stereoscope to merge them, the two images form a phantom centre image, which has a pronounced 3D effect.
Using some surprisingly sharp lenses, the 35mm Kodak shoots 20 pairs of stereo images on a strip of 36 exposure film. Each image is 23 x 24mm in size, and the way each stereo pair is entwined with other stereo pairs on the film makes scanning a bit tedious, but the results (I believe) are worth it.
I’m sure, to anyone who’s only ever taken a photo with a telephone, 1950-something sounds like an eternity ago. They might even believe this camera dates from the dawn of 3D photography, but they’d be wrong. The fact is, stereo photography is almost as old as photography itself.
Niépce took his first photo in 1826 — a mere six years before Charles Wheatstone realized you could take two side-by-side photos and gain access to that precious third dimension. But the whole concept really took off in the 1840s, when optical physicist David Brewster slapped a couple of refracting lenses onto a stereographic viewing device, and caught the attention of Queen Victoria. Thanks to the royal thumbs-up, stereographs lit a fire beneath the rapidly evolving caldron of photographic techniques, and within months the London Stereoscopic Company had manufactured hundreds of thousands of stereoscopes plus a million stereographic prints — employing teams of photographers to travel the world to take 3D images.
Unfortunately, Brewster’s stereograph was not very forgiving of those with either non-aristocratic incomes or less-than-perfect vision, and many people — Oliver Wendell Holmes included — would get headaches from using them. This prompted Holmes to partner with Joesph Bates, and invent an extremely simple, lightweight, handheld device with an adjustable lens-to-photo distance that allowed people with crappy vision and a beer budget to also enjoy 3D photos.
Stereography remained popular for a couple of decades, until it became a victim of its own success — attracting photographers with both dubious imaging skills and a penchant for rephotographing other photographer’s stereo cards. With declining image quality came declining interest. An economic downturn further dampened the appeal of the stereograph, as did the inevitable backlash that occurs when one generation yields to the next. In this case, it was a hip, new breed of young photographers — engaged in the hip, new school of “pictorialism” — who universally proclaimed stereography “a gimmick,” and declared photography’s true purpose was to give an artist’s impression of a scene, and not a clinical rendering.
3D fell from favour in the art world, but found new life in the educational market, where ‘clinical renderings’ were considered a good thing. Over time, as movies and television introduced their own third dimension (time) to the photographic image, the educational market began to erode, and stereographic interest shifted to motion pictures, which adopted another ancient viewing method: the “anaglyphic magic lantern.” Unlike the stereo cards favoured since the Victorian era, this technique did not project two separate side-by-side images, but instead coloured one red and the other cyan, and superimposed them into a single frame. In order to see the 3D effect, viewers used special glasses with one red lens and one cyan lens, thus ensuring each eye would see only the correctly coloured image. As ubiquitous in the mid-20th century as stereoscopes were in the mid-19th, I suspect anyone who’s old enough to remember the panic surrounding Y2K is likely to have at least one pair of cardboard red/cyan 3D glasses in the bottom of a forgotten drawer or box.
As the years progressed, 3D continued to go in and out of fashion — and with each resurgence came and went other viewing methodologies. The simple red/cyan anaglyph glasses yielded to more advanced polarized glasses, which yielded to the active shutter glasses that fuelled the failed 3D TV market in the early part of the 21st century. Lenticular prints and their online equivalent, the “wigglegram”, represent two more attempts to create widespread acceptance of simple 3D photographic stills — each but a blip in the trash heap of trends.
It’s clear that the one unifying factor in stereography’s 200 year struggle to succeed has been (and continues to be) the absence of a suitable viewing mechanism — something I find rather strange. After all, most of us have two eyes with variable focus capability; and there are two images in front of us — so why do we need a mechanical viewing aid at all? Why not just refocus our eyes to form a phantom stereo image between the two projected halves? We can all position ourselves between a pair of stereo speakers, and without donning some sort of elaborate, rickety contraption, we can hear the instruments spread across a phantom sound stage. Our eyes’ ability to localize objects is no different than our ears’.
I’ve had a fascination for stereo photography since, as I child, I first peered through a beige Model G View-Master at a handful of God-awful tourism reels. But it was enough to hook me, and I have subsequently engaged with far more (and far more obscure) types of stereo images than I discuss in this cursory introduction. In the 30 years since I decided to take the leap from photography connoisseur to actual photographer, I’ve wanted to get involved with stereography — but the distribution problem has always stopped me.
Now, however, in my new guise as a photographer who doesn’t give a crap about his legacy, I’ve decided to finally take the plunge.
In general, I’ve settled on three techniques for displaying stereographic images:
Method one (and my favourite, by far) is the classic Victorian approach of stereo cards and an Oliver Wendell Holmes style viewer. Alas, not only is it the most internet-hostile of the techniques, it’s even gallery-hostile — since only one person at a time can engage with a stereograph. This approach guarantees I’m the only one who will see the photos in their greatest glory — hence the need to be comfortable with obscurity.
Method two is the humble red/cyan anaglyph, which can be vaguely satisfying when viewing images online — provided one is willing to rummage around a few drawers and boxes to find that old pair of cardboard glasses. Without such glasses, however, the photos are pure gobbledygook.
Method three, which I find to be the most satisfying for online viewing, is the crossed-view presentation technique. This method requires absolutely no goofy viewing devices and uses nothing more than our own eyes — just like people listen to stereo with nothing more than their own ears. However, many people do need to practice a bit in order to see the phantom image. And sadly, if I’ve learned anything from my time on earth, it’s that most people would rather buy their way to an instant solution than practice their way to a free and better one.
I have posted both crossed-vision and anaglyph images with this article. Those of you without benefit of a ratty old pair of glasses, but who still want to see some stereographs, will need to apply the crossed-view technique. For the unfamiliar, it works like this:
- Size your browser such that it’s wider than 1200 pixels.
- Click one of the cross-view photos to open it full size (1200 pixels wide).
- Position your eyes a little bit more than arm’s length from your computer, and focus on the screen.
- Slowly begin crossing your eyes until the two images form a centre, phantom image. It works best if you concentrate on aligning only one single element in the frame (preferably in the foreground). Once aligned, the stereo image should seem to almost snap into place and your eyes will lock focus — allowing you to peruse the image in full 3D glory, and without any viewing aid. If you feel your eyes crossing uncomfortably, you’re trying too hard. In general, your eyes only cross about as much as if you were trying to read a book pressed close to your face.
And if, after practicing, you’re still unable to form the phantom image, don’t sweat it — I’ve got an entirely different folly camera with which to horrify you in the next installment…
Personal Enjoyment Factor : 8 – this thing is a blast to shoot. Its only downside is it’s rather addictive and causes me to constantly prowl for scenes that would ‘look good in 3D’ even when I’m carrying a regular camera.
Convenience : 2 – The little aperture slide on top of the camera is a bit fiddly to set, and its through-the-viewfinder bubble level — while both handy and important — triggers 20 bouts of photographic OCD per roll. Scanning is a pain, since pairs are interleaved on the negative, requiring a lot of shuffling back and forth, with every left frame needing its scan exposure documented, so as to set a matching exposure for the right frame. Post processing is also a bit tedious (particularly since I employ three entirely different display techniques), but I’ve mostly automated that now. In general, when you consider the entire process from shooting-to-displaying, this is probably the fussiest camera I’ve used… but it pales compared to next month’s camera…
Long Term Potential : To taunt me from the camera shelf until I finally take that series of impressionist 3D photos I’m planning — photos that will ultimately become my greatest achievement. But with no ability to display them to a mass audience, I will eventually succumb to a devastating psychological breakdown, and a lifelong dependence on anti-depressants.
© 2022 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THE PHOTOS: Yes, these images are rather pedantic — so much so that I haven’t even bothered to publish them in a proper ULTRAsomething display format. That’s because, first and foremost, I needed to get comfortable with how the Kodak Stereo camera ‘draws’ a scene in 3D, and I had to devise a scanning and display methodology, as well. At this point, I’m now comfortable with the process, so my next goal (as mentioned in the article) is to start using stereography to create impressionist images — ’cause it’s about time someone thumbed their nose at all the pictorialists who ruined 3D photography in the late 19th century.
REMINDER: If you’ve managed to extract a modicum of enjoyment from the plethora of material contained on this site, please consider making a DONATION to its continuing evolution. As you’ve likely realized, ULTRAsomething is not an aggregator site. Serious time and effort go into developing the original content contained within these virtual walls — even the silly stuff.
But now impatient me has gotta go out and hunt down a pair of R-C “glasses”. Never saved any of the ones I so casually tossed away way back in the fifties. I shoulda known.
I’m sure there are some on eBay; a site I vowed I’d never access again.
I ponied up for a ‘good’ pair on Amazon — Five whole dollars for a pack of five… and genuine PLASTIC! No cardboard crap for a serious stereographer like me. Now if Netflix would just show “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” I’d be all set.
What is a camera? I was out last week with my M2 and Summicron 50 (brag, brag), looking for something to shoot (PCL warning) worthy of such hardware. A young gal asked me “Is that a camera?” Even the wiseguy in me couldn’t come up with an appropriate response. Only “Yes”.
The crossed-vision images are nicely clear and atmospheric, immersive in the current argot. As you say, the lenses are surprisingly sharp!
Hmmm… you might be onto something. The terms “3D photography” and “stereography” both have some rather heavy historical baggage to tote around. The darn thing might finally succeed if we all started calling it “immersive” photography, and introduced crossed-viewing techniques to the kindergarten curriculum.
Just in case you won’t stop on three articles: don’t bother with upgrading trilogy into gazilogy – call it Supplement (with some catchy subtitle: The mighty impact of …).
By the way, are you related to Abbots of London?
I don’t know. Now that you’ve coined the term “gazilogy”, I might have to take it as a challenge.
Most interesting. Thank you for ‘sharing’, the ‘heads up’ and being part of the ‘community’.
But, I was hoping for a set of free 3D glasses with this latest issue…
(And, unfortunately, PayPal no longer allows donations from ‘my country’.)
It’s amazing how many countries PayPal blocks from donating. Their policies have likely cost me dozens of dollars over the years. Maybe I’ll have to finally look in to joining Patreon — I might even offer a free pair of 3D glasses to “Platinum” subscribers…
An excellent idea ! PayPal doesn’t appear to believe in Thank yous.
My eye doctor once said that my stereoscopic vision was half-good (which I interpreted as “half-bad” and thought — hell, another sign that I’m not as perfect as I was convinced of in my youth, and later). Maybe that’s one reason I like the red/cyan images as they are, without 3D glasses. They have, for me, an extra layer of artistry. But the other pictures in this article are also interesting, as well as the very well-formulated, informative and entertaining text. Looking forward to the next month!
I believe you interpreted your doctor’s diagnosis correctly. Nirvana is an unattainable state, but ruin is always within our reach — so it makes far more sense to measure from zero than from infinity. Fortunately, a “half-bad” diagnosis leaves you with a ten-fold surplus of the visual acuity needed to “enjoy” photos from next month’s folly camera…