And furthermore ...

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Tuesday, 21 August 2012


 Eight stereographs
“The only problem with seeing too much is that it makes you insane.”

 In 1859 Jean Francois Gravelet, “the Great Blondin” was the first person to cross Niagara Falls on a high wire, setting a standard by cooking an omelette halfway across. The nest year William Hunt tried to outdo him by carrying a washing machine to the centre of his rope and washing the handkerchiefs several women spectators had given him. Niagara Falls did that to people. Maria Spelterina wore peach baskets on her feet and a paper bag on her head when she made the crossing in 1867 then two years later   Andrew Jenkins rode a velocipede across a wire. By comparison, Toronto photographer Samuel Dixon’s effort in 1890 was unpretentious except that only a few months earlier he had been crossing the Cantilever Bridge in a train bound for New York when he suddenly announced his intentions. Since he apparently had no experience with that kind of thing the other passengers didn’t take him seriously yet in May that year he made the first of two crossings. Look closely at the image and you can see Dixon is wearing a hoop around his ankles, which may have been a way to keep his balance. Dixon drowned in 1891 in a relatively ordinary and common boating accident. This Underwood & Underwood stereograph was published five years later, probably as part of a series on Niagara Falls. The photographer is unidentified, which is too bad since on its own the photograph makes excellent use of the lines created by the bridge, Dixon’s pole and the rope. Zoom in and you can also see the man on the catwalk, the train at the top of the bridge and the crowd across the other side.

 The best stereographic images make dramatic use of perspective – that’s the whole point of looking at them through a stereoscope – but it’s surprising how many don’t exploit this. This view of the Bowery, circa 1894, is a rare example. The photographer found a position best suited to photographing the length and depth of the street and waited until the train on the elevated track reached the perfect point: another second and the engine could have disappeared off screen. There is a good theory that in 19th century Europe photographers searched for the element of the city in static monuments and landmarks but in modern, forward looking New York they found it in the life of the street. There’s a lot to look at in this image, everything adding up to a bustling, noisy and vibrant city. The Casper and Cleveland sign at the centre top was a landmark on the Bowery but the company was taken over in 1894, which at least helps us date this.

 The very best stereographic images not only exploit perspective but the paired images work as one, creating their own organic design, as in this French card from Hyeres on the Mediterranean coast where the kerbs on either side of the avenue meet in the middle, linking the image to itself. By the 1890s when this photo was taken Hyeres had become established as an English enclave on the French Riviera and was about to become an essential site for the post-impressionists; they claimed nothing in common yet both were drawn to the town’s intense azure light and the Middle Eastern atmosphere created by whitewash and palm trees. You get a sense of both in this image; allée Victoria, named after the Queen, and the family under the palms looking like an idea for a small oil painting.

 From the same publisher the same idea of the sharply receding passage, and maybe part of a bigger project to photograph the essential sites of France. Solesmes Abbey was built in the 10th century by Benedictines and survived the vicissitudes of French history until 1790, when the revolutionary Assembly abolished all monastic orders. In 1839, with most of the original Assembly dead or in disgrace, Dom Prosper Guéranger  revived the Benedictine order at Solesmes, making the abbey a centre for the Catholic revival in France (not that Catholicism had ever really gone away). For any Catholic visiting France in the 1890s, the abbey was an essential destination. The light falling on the vaulted ceiling makes this an exceptional image. In a few years photographers would consider that effect outré moderne.

 The third from the same publisher has no dramatic perspective but it does have a lot to look at; the masts, the barrels, the harbourside hotels and bars, the French poodle (in case you were wondering where it was taken). France’s access to Mediterranean trade, Marseilles was never a glamorous port but it was always tougher and seedier than Paris. The woman with the basket on a stand appears to be selling apples. 

At first glance this stereograph of a garden on Pincian Hill in Rome doesn’t look that remarkable but on closer inspection you realize nobody is aware of the camera. It is a snapshot, probably taken with an early Kodak camera. Dated 1903, it could have been taken a few years earlier but compare it to the one of Marseilles above. To take the Marseilles image the photographer could have mounted a heavy camera on a tripod and waited for the various elements to fall into place. Here the photographer held the camera at waist height and snapped then walked off to find another scene. The people here may not have had any idea a shutterbug was in their midst.

If you couldn’t exploit perspective in a stereograph then the key to success was to fill an image with details. Looking at stereographs was a private affair after all; a family could gather round the stereoscope but they could only look at the images one at a time and it really was something better done on your own. At the turn of the century the Steglitz company in Germany began publishing stereoviews and postcards for a new mass market. This one was taken at Misdroy, or Międzyzdroje as it is better known today, Poland’s only claim to a Riviera and a brave one at that judging by the modern photographs of grey sands butting on to greyer water. Things were changing in Europe though not so fast on the Baltic beaches obviously enough. It’s another snapshot, taken quickly and without too much attention to composition. The point of interest is the clothing the women are wearing and the fact no one goes deeper than ankle height. Notice how the women have their backs to the camera: you wonder if it was considered indecorous for a photographer to snap them in their swimwear.

 We can definitely date this photograph to between the 26th of June 1911 and the 28th of June 1912. During it’s brief life the Schwaben Zeppelin was known as the ‘lucky airship’ on account of surviving its first flights, that being apparently uncommon. It could also be considered the first successful passenger aircraft, ferrying over 6000 Germans around the country, until it was snapped in half by a storm - which makes you think luck had nothing to do with it. Still, you can see in this image how people the world over thought they were at the dawn of a new era in transportation.


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