Stereoscopic Surveys & Sequences

Both born in the 1830s like the comic strip, photography and the stereoscope—an optical device to view 3D drawings—teamed up by the 1850s to produce the nineteenth century’s most panoramic and sequential form of photography. To generations of armchair travelers, stereoscopic photography offered a high-tech window onto the world, as well as an early form of cinema—all with unprecedented realism. For the rest of the century, stereoscopic views became the leading form of mass-produced photography, sold not only in photographers’ and opticians’ shops but also in drugstores, mirrors and frame shops, accessories, gift, and “fancy goods” stores[1]. Some historians call them the first modern mass media.

These 3D photographs consisted of paired images shot from slightly different angles, on metal or glass plates or, most commonly, paper glued to a cardboard support. Stereo views lend themselves particularly well to rendering sets with defined foreground and background planes. Nineteenth-century stereoscopic photography is panoramic because stereo photographers often published their images as documentary sets (tour of a city or a country, geographical and ethnological surveys, etc.) of a dozen or hundreds views.  RobbinsRecto2This fine mid-1870s stereo view, for instance, belongs to a series by Frank Robbins detailing Pennsylvania’s early oil industry. It is doubly panoramic in that it belongs to an educational overview in 116 images and features a rarity on the back of the card: a drawing that supplements the explanatory text with a panoptic rendition of the well’s depth (you can see it there). After the 1870s, stereoviews nearly always bore a caption, and, in the case of the largest 50b copydocumentary sets, an educational text of up to 250-300 words on the back of the card and/or companion booklets and maps. Around 1900, such sets became a staple in modern US school libraries—high-tech image/word reference tools detailing the modern world with unprecedented precision at a time when printing technology did not yet afford high photographic reproduction quality in books and periodicals.

Back in the 1860s, amidst a profusion of stereoviews showcasing international landscapes, monuments, and street scenes (once exposure time permitted to feature moving subjects), stereoscopic photography also made the step from single-image photographic narrative to more elaborate fiction, the same way magic lantern tricks worked.

The so-called ‘French tissue’ view was a stereoscopic paper slide that recycled transparency tricks of the peep show and Daguerre & Bouton’s 1820s diorama theater. It got much mileage out of the very low-tech effect obtained by piercing small holes through the paper to let light through in selected areas of the image. For a night vista, backlighting darkens the sky and illuminates famous monuments or picturesque chalets.

“Surprise’ Tissue View, Locomotive at station,” recto & verso, n.d. Source: ‘Stereo Views,’ Scientific Curiosities, Thomas Charles Sanberg.

“Surprise’ Tissue View, Locomotive at station,” recto & verso, n.d. Source: ‘Stereo Views,’ Scientific Curiosities, Thomas Charles Sanberg.

A few dashes of watercolor on the back of the thin paper slide reveal hidden shapes and colors when held up to the light; eerie skeletons’ eyes turn red, carriages or balloons suddenly appear in previously empty photographic sceneries.  That’s where photographic storytelling begins.

Some artists went further in proposing more than just an alternate atmosphere for the same location: they simulated action by representing dynamic objects. In backlit mode, some tissue views reveal a train passing through a lonely country station or a warship exploding at sea. In its utmost simplicity, the backlighting effect enhances the views with more than just aesthetic value: the apparition turns them into micro-narratives. The simple before-and-after continuum created generates an implicit story, elementary as it might be, just like those found in the few lithographies à système (flip prints) published in the French satirical weekly La Caricature in the early 1830s (see figs. 11 and 12 there). These stereographic dual sequences made magic-lantern tricks portable and brought them unprecedented realism.

Les blanchisseuses (ca 1870). Source :

Les blanchisseuses [laundrywomen] (ca 1870). Source :

3D strove on views of lands and people around the world, yet turned out to bring very little to the studio portrait, whose stereo treatment remained largely reserved to personalities, artistic nudes, and pornographic pictures. However, the stereoscope soon proved an apt vehicle for staged studio scenes. Soon appeared a new generation of images involving human subjects, with models posing in increasingly elaborate sets. A stereoscopic version of the urban building cross-section view trope, for example, can be seen there. Static pantomime drew from genre painting and popular prints, as well as tableaux vivants, and also refreshed their stock themes. By the 1860s, sequences of two or three images were not uncommon.

By the 1870s still drama  offered  a wide diversity in scenes. Publishers of stereoscopic fiction produced hundreds of series of comical and moralistic images. As Denis Pellerin has remarked, the material conditions required to produce them, costumes, accessories, painted backgrounds and studios large enough to accommodate groups of models, were basically the same as those

Attributed to A. Silvester. "Going out" and "Coming In". 1870s. Source :

Attributed to A. Silvester. “Going out” and “Coming In”. 1870s. Source :

found in Georges Méliès’ Montreuil studio twenty years later. As state-of-the-art as it was, it merely replicated a system already inaugurated by the pioneers of stereoscopic fiction[2]. Though they commonly feature a handful of characters, such scenes could involve up to a dozen actors.

Yet, large-scale stage photography remained impossible until the late 1880s, under the double constraint of exposure time and lighting. As a substitute, another form of studio stereoscopic art used posed clay figures to recreate key scenes from popular theater productions. Set within detailed tabletop scale models, they could also play out assorted scenes of folks tales, fables, allegories and satires. This stereoscopic entertainment very literally was the first version of the home theater—Le Théâtre chez soi, as one French publisher titled his catalog.

A [post-1882] set of 12 stereoscopic tissue views in lithographed box. Based on the Jules Verne novel Le tour du monde en 80 jours. Source: ‘Stereo Views,’ Scientific Curiosities, Thomas Charles Sanberg

Whereas sentimental images inherently tended to constitute self-sufficient tableaux, comical and more dramatic situations often evolved into full-fledged narrative sequences, customarily sold in sets of 2, 6 or 12 views. Across stories of various narrative paces, captions unite stereoscopic drama with other sequential arts. They prefigure the intertitles of movie shorts to come, as much as they evoke contemporary comics, which did not use speech balloons until the 1890s, and recall William Hogarth’s eighteenth-century prints cycles. A Drinker’s Progress, for instance, depicts the degeneration of a middle-class alcoholic, from “First drink at a public bar” to “Delirium Tremens” to “The Bitter End. Pauper’s Coffin and Lone Watcher” (his dog). The classic “French Cook” storyline, of which several versions were produced over the years, is an American turn-of-the-century classic bourgeois farce in which a husband’s philandering impulses find resolution in firing the object of his interest. One rhyming version has the 12-image story progress from “Housekeeping begins with a naïve French cook./‘She’s a dandy,’ thought the husband when he took a look” to “You brazen huzzy! You shall leave at this hour! And the least of your faults is the wasted flour.”

An unsigned sequence identified by the President of the International Photographic Historical Organization as “[of] French origin and first seen in the 1870s[3] bears much resemblance to Georges Méliès’ films, which made their appearance later, in the mid-1890s. This version of the ‘artist’s dream’ topos develops it into a twelve-scene story. A romantic-looking, well-to-do painter has fallen asleep sitting at his canvas. He starts dreaming. The various phases of his dream materialize successively in a floating cloud, akin to a thought-bubble in a modern comic strip.

A succession of nude females sculptures appear throughout the subsequent views, finally to materialize into a muse of flesh and blood in an inviting attitude. As the painter gets on his knees to embrace her, the Grim Reaper suddenly pops up at her side, arm wrapped around her shoulder. The startled artist’s mimic suggests that he lets out a scream. He wakes up and finds himself alone, still sitting in his chair. The dramatization of the special effects involved in this sequential narrative (apparitions, transformations, and floating objects) begs for comparison with Méliès’ films. They serve as reminder that although historical shortcuts have made Méliès the inventor of cinematic special effects indiscriminately, some of his discoveries consisted in adapting existing photographic techniques and effects to the new medium. More importantly to sequential arts and word and image studies, this sequence acts as a bridge between the comic strip and ‘animated photography.’

[1] See Keith B.C. Brady and Jean Stacy Gore, “George Stacy,” Stereo World, March-April 2015, volume 40, number 5, p. 17.

[2]  “Grâce à des décors modulables, à des toiles de fond, à une quantité d’accessoires, les photographes, influencés par le théâtre, transforment leurs ateliers en grand magasin, en café-concert, en refuge de montagne, en mer déchaînée, en buffet de gare, en champ de course ou en salon de réception et y font évoluer des modèles payés, des membres de leurs famille. … Certains ateliers sont assez vastes pour recevoir plus de trente personnes. Citons celui de [Henri] Lefort qui dispose d’une soixantaine de fonds peints, fait appel à une foule de figurants et emploie une grande variété d’objets encombrants (cheval factice, omnibus, barque, arbres majestueux, etc.). L’étroitesse d’autres studios assigne à la chambre noire une position immuable et laisse entrevoir l’envers du décor, le mur du local ou un coin de la verrière. … Un décor est coûteux, et son installation parfois longue: aussi servira-t-il à une multitude de sanyètes fort différentes” (Pellerin, Denis.  La Photographie stéréoscopique sous le second empire.  Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 1995, 23).

[3] “Nobody knows who actually took the photos, but several makers of generic stereo views produced the exact same set over several decades” (Silver, David.  “Re: Anonymous Stereoscopic Views.”  E-mail to the author.  21 Jul. 2007, n.p.).


Use and / or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Philippe Willems with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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