Technological Object: Stereopticon


At the June 1865 meeting of the Philadelphia Photographic Society, an account was given of a stereopticon ‘entertainment’ at which a member of the society had recently been present. ‘The audience,’ the speaker said, ‘was a model audience, so quiet and so attentive’:

Dr. Lee read to them from some book of travels in Rome, and as he read, the various scenes about which he was reading were thrown on the screen in a circle of light, eighteen feet in diameter. The dissolving effect was well managed, and occasionally, during pauses of the reading, and while the pictures were being shown, music was introduced to vary the entertainment. Familiar as I am with exhibitions of this class, I never passed a more agreeable evening.

The stereopticon was one of the many technological curiosities to emerge between the dawn of photography and the invention of film. An early form of projector, its inner workings were those of the magic lantern, but its innovation lay in the projection of photographic slides rather than drawn or painted ones. Developed and patented as ‘Hyalotypes’ — from the Greek for ‘glass’ — by the Langenheim brothers in 1850, these slides were shown through twin lenses which were positioned one above the other to produce the ‘dissolving effect’ described by the PPS reporter. By fading one photographic image into another, a movement much smoother than the clear-cut changes of previous magic lanterns could be achieved. Another attraction of the stereopticon was the fact that the minutest photographic detail could be magnified, retaining such clarity that it could be seen by viewers in their hundreds and even thousands.

The audience listening so intently to Dr. Lee’s lecture in the account given above were patients at the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, the first organisation to organise regular stereopticon displays. Under the direction of the neurologist and psychiatrist Dr Thomas Story Kirkbride, whose chance acquaintance with the Langenheim brothers had brought the stereopticon to his attention, the Hospital had been implementing stereopticon lectures as part of its ‘moral treatment’ of insanity as early as 1851. By the mid-1860s, stereopticon displays had displaced a number of the Hospital’s other social activities to become the central element of its treatment programme.

Collective experience of what one contemporary viewer called ‘all the minute details of [a] subject as it really exists’ made the stereopticon the perfect mechanism for the restoration of sanity. The projection of images of the world’s natural, cultural and scientific phenomena, accompanied by an explanatory lecture, would exercise the patient’s ability to think sequentially through a series of images and facts, while the simple act of sitting in an audience would improve self-control and social awareness. The mechanical ‘dissolve’ effect between images offered room for contemplation, but established continuity and narrative connection between the slides. No space was left for inattention as the mechanism’s effect held the gaze; meanwhile, Kirkbride’s decree that Hospital staff and visiting guests attend these exhibitions suspended the distinction between sane and insane, doctor and patient.

With the outbreak of the American Civil War, this restorative machine became a key technology through which the country’s cataclysmic physical and psychological disturbance was both felt and remembered. In June 1864, while the war still raged, a chemist named John Fallon presented a week of evening stereopticon lectures entitled The Army of the Potomac. Amongst images charting the progress of the North’s most formidable army from the battle of Bull Run to the present, Fallon projected some of Alexander Gardner’s famous photographs of the war dead at Antietam and Gettysburg. Mangled and bloated, these bodies appeared magnified on a screen covering 600 square feet. While one advertisement in the New York Daily Tribune announced that the ‘faithful and vivid’ images had been ‘vouched for by all our generals’, the hyperreality of the stereopticon’s massive projections elicited some fantastical responses from its observers: one reviewer even claimed that ‘the dead appear almost to speak; the distant to overcome space and time and be close and palpable.’

Bodies at Antietam

But the dead could not speak, and the sensation of palpable immediacy was impossible. The stereopticon’s ability to project three-dimensional images was a common misconception, a result of the machine’s technological hybridity. Stereoscopic photographs — which produced a three-dimensional effect by placing two images of the same scene side-by-side — had usually been cut in two and fed individually into the stereopticon, giving the device its name. By association, viewers were frequently led to believe that they were seeing the images of statues, people and landscapes three-dimensionally, as ‘rounded, glowing picture[s]’. The stereoscope, which required the viewer to peer at its double images through a binocular eye-piece, had offered a particularly private and carefully controlled experience of photography in America from the early 1850s. Read erroneously into the stereopticon’s projections, the private encounter became public. At the same time, the dead of the Civil War stereograph, once accessible privately and for as long as the viewer chose to view them, suddenly became shared, overt and physically overwhelming.

Yet along with the thrill of this new collective experience and its stimulating effects on the imagination came a certain kind of distance. Where the chronological element of Fallon’s show provided a narrative arc which claimed historical perspective even before the war had ended, the reviewer’s assertion that ‘the dead appear almost to speak’ hangs on the ‘almost’. In its magnification of photographic detail, the stereopticon placed the bodies of the Civil War dead at a further remove than either photographs or stereographs had done: to inspect the details of a twisted face or crumpled uniform does not replicate an experience of the dead on the battlefield, nor is it the same as seeing the compact, three-dimensional scene provided by the stereoscope. The reviewer’s ‘almost’ indicates a moment of fantasy which the stereopticon’s display at once suggests and withdraws, an imaginative sensation curbed by observational distance.

As the nineteenth century went on, showmen and touring lecturers became more experimental with their stereopticon displays, using slide projections as backgrounds against which actors would perform, as well as beginning to think carefully about the implications of slide order and a kind of overall editing process. With the development of new and more spectacular visual media, however, the stereopticon’s once-innovative workings were subsumed into new technologies and the machine itself became a thing of the past. Nonetheless, the technological and literary afterlives of the stereopticon have extended into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The first of these afterlives was perhaps more successful than the second: not only was the transition between photographic slides a harbinger of the film reel’s instantaneous transition between frames, but the celebrated dissolve found its way into cinematic editing as an effect which continued to be used to establish certain spatial and temporal relations between scenes. Much later, the stereopticon’s dissolve would become available as one of a range of effects applicable to the digitized slide show format of the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentation.

The stereopticon’s literary afterlife was more confused and somewhat less successful, since — to some American authors — the word itself came to evoke an assortment of visual and psychological effects not all of which actually belonged to the original machine. In describing the runaway thoughts of a ‘New York Kid’ as he and his friends find themselves in a stand-off with a group of shadowy Mexicans, Stephen Crane’s short story ‘Five White Mice’ (1898) uses ‘stereopticon’ to conjure an effect which resembles film more than it does the dissolve of the slide-show. The Kid’s frantic visions ‘were perfectly stereopticon, flashing in and away from his thought with an inconceivable rapidity, until, after all, they were simply one quick, dismal impression.’ Crane’s adjectival turn detaches effect from machine in pursuit of psychological panic and its inner, visual manifestations.

Where Crane’s ‘stereopticon’ results in dimness, William Faulkner and Eudora Welty both confuse the stereopticon with the stereoscope in order to bring an optical solidity to moments of psychological disturbance. In his short story ‘The Bear’ (1942), Faulkner casts the complex of scandal and suffering upon which the McCaslin plantation is built as a ‘stereopticon whole’. As Ike McCaslin confronts his troubled Southern heritage, the office in which he sits is transformed, ‘so that, as the stereopticon condenses into one instantaneous field the myriad minutiae of its scope, so did that slight and rapid gesture [of his cousin’s hand] establish […] not only the ledgers but the whole plantation in its mazed and intricate entirety’. Faulkner’s metonymic movement remembers the panoramic three-dimensionality of the compact stereographic view at the same time as evoking the stereopticon’s claustrophobic magnification of detail.

Finally, in Eudora Welty’s short story ‘Kin’ (1955), the stereopticon’s dissolving slide-show mechanism is mistakenly encased within the form of the binocular-like stereoscope. Here, the language once used to describe the stereopticon’s photographic and kinetic innovations is requisitioned in order to grasp psychological disturbance inflicted by the Civil War. Its original physical form made redundant by the progress of visual media, the stereopticon becomes a set of disembodied effects that shift and mutate in literature’s attempts to replicate the neuroses of the modern mind.

—Kristen Treen

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4 Responses to Technological Object: Stereopticon

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  4. David Trotter says:

    Fascinating! So much of the commentary, from Oliver Wendell Holmes onwards, has concentrated on the stereoscope and its privately-induced effects of palpability (the scene represented so close, Kafka said, that you could almost feel it with your tongue). So it’s eye-opening (literally, perhaps) to hear about the scale of the projections, as well as their use of montage. But I wasn’t quite sure how the stereopticon’s ‘magnification of detail’ could be ‘claustrophobic’. To me, it’s the stereoscope which makes you feel hemmed in.

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