TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Obsessions Manifested: Stereoviews

Stereoviews on Rayela Art

When I was a kid, I spent my allowance on two things:  arts supplies and stamps.  Both were obsessions.  If I wasn't making something, I was organizing my stamps, spending hours and hours pasting them into my various books, eventually ending up with over 15,000 of them.  Yes.  I counted them!  I learned a lot about the world through those stamps.  How different countries called themselves, their landscapes, historical happenings.  It broadened my interest in the world and I traveled around through them.

Now I have a new obsession:  Stereoviews.  Also called stereographs, stereo optic cards, and many other names, these photos were the first 3-d images to capture the public's imagination and thirst for world travel.  A special camera with two lenses captured the scene at a slight change in position.  When mounted on a card, side by side and viewed with a viewer (called a stereoscope), the images popped into 3-d:


I've picked up a couple, here and there, at antique shops, just because I thought they were interesting.  But, recently, I was able to purchase a whole slew of them, around 300 cards and have started to organize and list them on Etsy.  You can see them in my shop:  click.  I didn't really have an idea of their value so I've had to do some research.  Stereoviews enjoyed over 60 years of popularity and millions of copies were made.  They were used as educational tools, parlor entertainment, and were treasured as windows to the world.  Photographers captured the Wild West, historical buildings, everyday scenes, theatrical plays, vegetation, animals, and almost anything you can imagine.  They are an invaluable record of life in the late 1800's.

The earliest stereoviews were actual photos pasted on to cardboard.  Later, lithographs were made of those same photos and towards the end, collections were printed by the thousands.  Of course, the most valuable are the earlier ones, dating before the 1880's and those of photographers who became famous and collectable. About half of the ones I have are lithos and the other half are the old photos.  Many are in poor condition, but who knows?  Maybe a couple will win the lottery!  As I list them, I look them up on google and have been fascinated by the stories I am finding.

One example is of the Cliff House:

Cliff House Stereograph on Rayela Art

The above image is the card that I have for sale.  It has a fold in it and is not a great, collectible item.  Looking at it, I wondered why anyone would build a big old mansion on the end of a cliff like that....  Turns out there is whole story behind it and one man has made his obsession manifest:  Gary's Cliff House Project.  He has pages and pages of documentation on this grand old hotel in San Francisco, visited by Roosevelt and other dignitaries. 

Gary's project is a fascinating documentation of history zoomed in on one spot on the globe.  The Cliff House did not last long, consumed by a fire in 1907:

Cliff House Fire

His site documents the fire, news stories, reconstruction, and on to current day images of the site, a total transformation.  One could spend hours going through everything he has collected.  Why?  Because this snapshot somehow tells us about our own history, how our collective past shaped the world as it is today.

The photographers who went out and collected these images had to have an adventuresome spirit and the physical ability to face the challenges of carrying the equipment and putting up with the hazards of travel: no infrastructure, living in tents, exposed to the elements and to hostile encounters.

"Taking a tramp in the country"
Universal Series, Stereoscopic Gems
Of American & Foreign SceneryCopyright 1901 by C. H . Graves

One of the photographers who made his mark on history was T. Enami, a Japanese photographer who captured the late 1800's and early 1900's in Japan with thousands of sensitive, beautiful and historical images.

Rob Oechsle has a website dedicated to his work, T-Enami.org, another place you can spend a good chunk of your day.

Photos by T. Enami

As the stereoview obsession grew, so did the publishers who collected images and reproduced them, often without any thought of copyrights or ownership.  I have a couple of Japanese litho cards listed, but do not know if they were originally Enami's:
Vegetable Peddler, Yokohama, Japan

Shinto Priests in Tokyo

Some of the commercially printed cards have stories about the image on the back.  These can provide some pretty shocking attitudes of the times, especially towards native peoples.  I have this card listed of an Egyptian girl:

Portrait of Bisharin Girl, Stereoview
The text on the back says:


If beauty is but skin deep, so is ugliness, and both are a matter of taste. May we not assume that the boy in the background personifies open-mouthed wonder at the beauty of the idol of his heart? Or did the poet think that this girl when he smote the lyre, singing: "A kiss from her two rosy lips would make me hale and whole?" The man who took this picture is authority for the fact that the original was the proud daughter of the richest man in the village, who owned twenty goats, two donkeys and four camels, a wealth unparalleled among all the Bisharin tribes twenty miles around, and that she was considered a great beauty among all the marriageable young men of her race, but was held as a great prize by her father who would not give her away for less than one camel and ten goats. The background of the picture is formed by the wall of the tent, made from plaited grasses and stretched on poles which the Bisharin call a house, easily folded together and carried away on a donkey's back, when the animals have eaten up the scant vegetation in one place, and quickly set up again a few miles further on.

Yikes!  Ethnocentric to say the least...

It will take me awhile to get all of my cards listed and I will have to re-open my shop on eBay.  That is where the stereo view community congregates and I don't want to overwhelm my Etsy shop with non-textile items.   I'll announce it here when that happens, so stay tuned.

How about you?  Have any obsessions manifested themselves in your life?  Collectors often seem like the nut in the hood, but some of these obsessions have also preserved stories from the past for the rest of us.  Is it a mis-fire in the brain that takes us to an extreme in pursuing an interest?  Or, is it the same part of the brain that propels scientists to zoom into the minute details of how the world operates?  Share your obsession with the rest of us.  It is bound to be an interesting story!


1 comment:

“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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