Wednesday, August 4, 2010

See It Now in 3-D! Hi-tech imagery of the 1880s.

Doug Kendall, Curator of Collections

If you’ve been to the movies lately, you know that “3-D” is back in a big way. More and more movies must be viewed using plastic glasses provided by the theatre in return for a premium ticket price. I recently saw Despicable Me which was shown using “Real D 3D” TM technology. The movie was amusing, though I’m not convinced the illusion of three dimensions added much to it.

Of course, this isn’t the first wave of “3-D” image technology. 3-D goes way back—much further than Bwana Devil (1952) starring Robert Stack, considered the first color, American 3-D movie. As early as the 1860s, photographers were capturing images that could be viewed as if they were 3-dimensional. The last half of the 19th century was the first golden age of stereoscopic still images, usually known as stereographs or stereopticons.

It is necessary to take two photographs for a stereoscopic image. In the 19th century, photographers such as Cooperstown’s Washington G. Smith did this with two cameras or with one camera moved quickly to two positions.

In the Cooperstown area, Smith and his rival A. A. Cooley provided tourists with 3-D mementoes of their holidays on Otsego Lake. Cooley took this image of Kingfisher Tower, Edward Clark’s “folly” on the eastern shore of the lake, shortly after it was built in 1876. Smith recorded the journeys of the steamboat Natty Bumppo up and down the waters of the Glimmerglass.

Point Judith with Kingfisher Tower
Stereographic print on cardboard.
A. A. Cooley, Cooperstown, after 1876.

Then again, stereoscopy also lent itself well to images of extraordinary events, such as “Professor Maillefert’s Sub-Marine Exhibition,” photographed by Smith in August 1871. Benjamin Maillefert, a Spanish-born engineer, pioneered methods of underwater blasting that helped make New York’s Hell Gate safe for shipping. Evidently he also travelled the country to demonstrate his methods. His performance on Otsego Lake was “witnessed by a large number of highly interested spectators” according to S. M. Shaw’s Chronicles of Cooperstown. Wash Smith undoubtedly believed that those spectators—as well as those who didn’t see the explosions first-hand—would want a 3-dimensional record of the event.

Professor Maillefert’s Sub-Marine Exhibition
Stereographic print on cardboard.
Washington G. Smith, 1871.

Stereoscopy has faded in and out of popularity in the years since these images were created. With the reboot of cinematic 3-D and the advent of 3-D televisions and digital cameras, perhaps we are seeing its latest boom—will 3-D last this time?

Steamboat Landing-Rose Lawn
Stereographic print on cardboard.
Washington G. Smith, 1872-1898.

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