Monday, 15 August 2016

Stereoscopy: an Introduction to Victorian Stereo Photography

I’ve just undertaken a free online course on Victorian stereo photography which was put together by the University of Edinburgh and run by FutureLearn.  It grew out of a major exhibition held at the National Museum of Scotland last year, Photography: A Victorian Sensation, and was designed to last from 1-14 August 2016, taking about six hours.  Those completing the course could purchase a certificate, but it was not compulsory.

Examples of stereograms were drawn from National Museums Scotland, in Edinburgh, and there was a decidedly Scottish bias to the presentation.  The Howarth-Loomes Collection featured prominently, and the course was a fine advertisement for this remarkable holding.  Containing about 18,000 objects which Bernard Howarth-Loomes had gathered from the 1960 onwards, after his death in 2002 it was loaned to National Museums Scotland by his widow Alma and is promised as an eventual bequest by her.  While his collection covers a lot of ground, it did guide the course’s direction; it was noted that the most popular stereo card ever produced was one of Blondin crossing Niagara Falls by tightrope, taken by William England, but it was not shown, presumably because Howarth-Loomes had not acquired a copy.

The course was also a good advertisement for the London Stereoscopic Company.  Brian May and Denis Pellerin, both directors, gave interviews, and there were references to the LSC’s books and its OWL stereoscopic device, which is a relatively cheap way to view stereo cards.

Learners began with the principles of stereoscopy and its origins before moving on to how it related to early photographic processes, the technical development of the stereoscope, and the various methods of taking the pictures.  Some of the significant pioneers and practitioners were introduced, such as Sir David Brewster, Louis Jules Duboscq, Thomas Richard Williams (focusing on his ‘Scenes in our Village’, of which Brian May has made a particular study, and his still lifes), and George Washington Wilson.

As well as the work of individuals, industry, technology and landscapes (unsurprisingly many from Scotland) were covered.  We could follow our Victorian forebears’ armchair travel, with the work of Francis Frith in the Middle East and William England on the Continent looked at in detail.  Closer to home there was much on fashion, with crinoline hoops providing opportunities for satire.  There were ‘ghosts’, capitalising on the fact that when someone leaves halfway through a long exposure they will be transparent on the finished image; even melodrama (‘Broken Vows’).  There were wonderful ‘French tissues’, a term which sounds vaguely pornographic but in fact describes the adding of translucent paper to enhance the effect of a stereogram, transforming it from ordinary monochrome to a magical scene when backlit.  A series of lunar stereo cards by Warren de la Rue concluded the course.

The content comprised clear text, plenty of examples of stereo cards (though one had to make one’s own viewing arrangements), and a number of videos and audio recordings, plus links to supplementary sources of information.  The two weeks were divided into 53 bite-sized chunks, making them easy to dip into, and there were occasional self-tests to check progress.  In addition each topic had a comments thread to which participants were encouraged to contribute, something they did with enthusiasm.  FutureLearn will leave the materials online for the foreseeable future, which will allow many more people to engage with this amazing aspect of photography, and learn about the Victorians and their world in the process.