Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Before TV and Movies, There Were Stereoviews

This post was first published on 7/23/12

(Please click on the photos to enlarge them and see them better)

The Story Behind the Photos--19th Century Greece

Starting around 1860 and lasting well into the 1900’s, nearly every home in the USA was equipped with a stereopticon viewer and a good supply of stereoview cards.  Some of the stereo-viewers were fancy tabletop pieces mounted on a base, often with inlaid wood.  But most of them, like mine above, were simple hand-held models.
"An old dream realized at last, ship-canal through  Isthmus, E.S.E. Corinth, Greece" Underwood. 
It was traditional for wealthy families to send their adult children on a “Grand Tour” to finish their education.  Families of more modest means could sit in their parlors and view all the outstanding sites and monuments of the world in 3-D thanks to their stereo viewer.  The reflecting lenses inside the viewer fused the two images on the stereo card—which were taken by separate camera lenses-- into one image that appeared to be three dimensional.
"A Father and Son of the race of Homer, Patras, Greece. 1897"
From the very beginning of photography—the daguerreotype in 1839—photographers have created stereoviews that appear three-dimensional when seen through a  viewer, but if you ever come across a stereo daguerreotype (polished silver on a copper plate)  or ambrotype (on glass), you’ve found an extremely rare and valuable photograph.  Oddly, the few stereo dags I’ve seen often portray nude or partially nude women—I guess the porn industry began long before the invention of photography.

The stereoviews that flooded the country from 1850 were (first) albumen prints pasted onto cardboard cards.  From the 1880’s to the 1920’s, the 7  by 3 1/2-inch cards had rounded corners and were curved to enhance the 3-D effect.

In their parlors, Americans viewed the horrors of dead bodies on Civil War battlefields, exotic customs of foreign cultures and the wonders of the world.  Explanatory notes were usually printed on the back of the card. 

By the turn of the century, viewers often collected groups of cards that were posed by actors to tell a story—for instance a series showing a soldier leaving his fiancée to go into battle, then being wounded and finally nursed back to health by his sweetheart who traveled to the hospital to care for him.

Sometimes the series told a humorous story like 10 cards I once owned showing how Mrs. Newlywed catches on to her husband’s dalliance with the comely cook by spying a floury handprint on the back of his suit coat, so she replaces the attractive cook with a plug-ugly one.

Often identical views were published by more than one company—many of these were pirated and of inferior quality.
"Temple of Nike, Acropolis, Athens, Greece."
In the U.S. the major makers of these super-popular stereo cards were (first) the Langenheim brothers of Philadelphia, then Underwood and Keystone and dozens of other lesser-known publishers. I haven’t been able to find proof of a connection between the humorous stereoview series and early silent movie companies like Biograph which produced “The Keystone Kops”, but it seems that early silent movies would be a natural successor to the stories told by actors in stereoviews.
"Statue of Byron, Athens, Greece."
Before 2004, when Athens was preparing to host the Olympics, I started collecting stereo views taken in Greece around 1896 when the first modern Olympics were staged in the country where the Olympic games were born.  I used the photos on  these stereo cards to design a series of note cards and a poster, sometimes adding a touch of color.
Left:  "Recruits for the Army before the Temple of Theseus, Athens." 
Right: "The best preserved temple in all Greece, the Theseion in Athens"
What thrilled the original owners of these stereo views was the lifelike three-dimensional quality of the scenes. But what thrilled me, upon viewing the antique photographs of Greece, was the chance to see my husband’s native country and countrymen the way they looked as they went about their daily life at the end of the 19th century.  It wasn’t the  temples and ruins that  intrigued me—they look much the same today when I visit Greece.  It was the people—the extras in the scene—that I cared about.
Left: "The Argolis plain, looking from Nauplia to Mykenae
Right: "East end of the Parthenon on the Acropolis at Athens"
Because the photographer wanted to dramatize the 3-D quality of each photo, he would choose some important site—let’s say the Acropolis—for the background, then he would put something—or someone—in the foreground and often in the middle ground too.  And the “models” he’d ask to pose were people who were handy-—soldiers, farmers, school children, pedestrians.
Left: "The Acropolis from Philopappos Hill", 
Right: "Columns of the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Acropolis in Distance, Athens"
I’ve never read anything about the methods of these stereo photographers, so I don’t know if they paid the bystanders whom they coached to stay very still until the photographer had focused on the scene with his large, boxy stereo camera on a tripod.
Left: View from Lykabettos Hill past the Royal Palace and the Acropolis to the sea, 
Right: "Greek Girls among ancient ruins"
I suspect these “extras” in the scene posed for free, just to witness this new-fangled thing called photography.
"City milk delivery, Athens, straight from the goat."
But in their traditional dress and everyday tasks, these humble Greeks achieved a kind of immortality as they became extras in historic scenes illustrating how life was lived in the days before electricity and television, smart phones and I-pads.
"Shepherds bringing Lambs to Market, Nauplia, Greece"
When I first visited Greece in 1968, there was still no electricity in my future husband’s village of Lia in Epiros, and women often wore their traditional garb, including the headscarves and embroidered vests, but by the seventies, electricity and television made it to the villages and all that authentic traditional detail was lost by the time they’d seen “Dallas”  and “The Fugitive.
"Holy Trinity Monastery, Greece, 1896" (Look at the artillery on the monk in the foreground!)
Whatever your area of interest—trains, ships, history, architecture, native Americans, anthropology, you can put together a great collection of antique stereoviews on the subject without a huge outlay of cash, thanks to EBay and sellers like my friends at Dave’s Stereos.  But if you come across any great views of 19th century Greece, give me a heads up first.

"Monastery of Hagia Trias (Holy Trinity) Meteora Rocks, Northern Greece"

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