Victorian Life: Now in 3D!

January 26, 2012

An unprecedented look at the world before 1920…

Warning! This page is full of moving images, which might make some people dizzy. Others have also reported inspiration, dress envy, and  addiction to these crazy-cool images. You have been warned!

This is a stereograph, a popular Victorian entertainment. The images appear almost identical: three beautifully dressed Victorian ladies in a tropical conservatory. For those of you unfamiliar with stereographs, they work on the same principle as modern 3D movies: two cameras are set next to each other, slightly apart, and a scene is captured simultaneously on both. When the two images are meshed together via special viewing glasses, the slight difference in angle produces an amazing 3D effect! How does it work? The space between your eyes does the same thing in real life, producing two slightly different pictures that your brain interprets as one scene. To see this in action, cover one eye. You’ll notice instantly that the way objects appear seems slightly off-kilter. Reach out and try to grasp something and you might come up short or to close (which is why it’s dangerous to drive with an eyepatch on)! By covering on of your eyes, you’ve deleted one of the “cameras” producing spacial relationships your brain creates naturally, turning your 3D vision into 2D.

To view stereographs, you need a View Master-like device create the magical effect. Each eye focuses on a separate, slightly angled photograph, mimicking the way your eyes focus on reality. The father of the retro-tastic View Master is the stereograph viewer:

Since they were relatively simple, these viewers were everywhere during the latter half of the 19th and early part of the 20th century. Bars even used them for risque peep-show pics, a penny a peek! Stereographers traveled around alongside regular photographers offering to turn every-day portraits into deep, naturalistic 3D windows.

In the modern world, though, we share most of our images via the internet, so when these old double-photos are uploaded, they loose their charm. Without a special viewer, they just look redundant. But where new technology is incompatible with the old, someone thinks up an adaption. In the case of stereographs, some brilliant mind discovered that if you cycle the two photos in a never-ending .GIF, it will display on a computer screen like one 3D picture! Check it out:

1912 3D, meet 2012 3D!

(This image is actually earlier than 1912, but “1899, meet 2012” just doesn’t have the same pizzazz.)

What I love most about these GIFs is that the 3D effect makes everything look much more tangible. The people look so much more approachable and the fashions become so much more vibrant! Texture becomes much more evident, as does the actual depth of flounce or stiffened puffs of tulle. The trio of ladies could be any of my fellow event-goers (who appear naturally 3D to me), right down to the slightly frizzy hair.

The images are a little more jittery and inelegant to view in GIF form, but they are much easier to share digitally than the cards themselves. The only downside is that most GIFs take a few seconds to load up to speed, so if you’re on a slower connection, let the animations load a moment before viewing them. Otherwise you might get a little sea-sick!

Here are a few more of my favorites:

These ladies are either residents or visiting the Middle east, enjoying a tea break. Notice the similarities in their bodice-belt-skirt combination, but how each has a different personal style. The stereograph animation makes the wonderful texture differences between their clothes much more evident!

So cute! Can you believe that those were sexy swimsuits? I still think they’re sexy, especially when you notice that these lovely model ladies appear to be wearing light bathing corsets. The 3D effect really brings out how cylindrical corsets make the waist and how they round out the bust, eliminating that “I-look-fat at this angle” thing that goes on with modern clothes. Maybe that’s another secret to why Victorian ladies look so great: they don’t a have a “bad” angle because they are evened out all around! These cute Victorian bathing suits are really easy to mimic, but that’s material for another post…

This is a real oldie, but a goodie! This stereograph daguerreotype is from the 1850s or so. It’s even got a viewer built into the carrying case! These portraits were the crème de la crème of daguerreotypes since it was basically buying two photographs. This smiling lady certainly looks like she could afford it, though. The dual-image really brings out the rich plushness of her velvet wrap and the large heavy earrings she’s wearing. If you look closely at her shoe, she appears to be wearing a buckle, perhaps of shiny cut steel or a fabric that matches her tiered gown.

Hungry for more? Check out Thiophene_Guy’s photostream on Flickr. He has everything from portraits to street scenes and exotic locales to architectural shots, all with links to the original images and information on how to make stereographic GIFs.

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