19 Stereoscopic Views of 19th-Century Los Angeles | KCET
19 Stereoscopic Views of 19th-Century Los Angeles
Almost as soon as photography had emerged as a commercial art practice by the mid-1800s, innovative photographers began experimenting with ways to bring their flat, still, monochromatic images to life. Some added color and scale by transferring the images to glass slides, tinting them by hand, and projecting them before an audience with the aid of a “magic lantern.” Others created the illusion of motion by capturing a burst of photographs and then flickering the photographic sequence before the eye with the aid of a zoetrope.
And then there were those who defeated the inherent flatness of the photograph through the art of stereography.
With our two horizontally offset eyes and a brain that unites the visual information from each one, we humans are accustomed to perceiving depth in the world. That depth perception allows us to intuit whether an object is near or far without moving. It presents us with a three-dimensional world. Cameras with only one lens can’t capture that depth, but stereoscopic cameras, with their two lenses spaced a few inches apart, can. When a stereograph’s twin images are held before the eyes at the right distance with the aid of a stereoscope (often shorted to stereo), stereoscopic photography can mimic our visual system’s binocular effect.
Soon after London’s Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851 popularized this optical marvel, photographers began publishing stereographs in a variety of genres – including city views that transported viewers, in 3-D, to distant settlements like Los Angeles. These made their way across the world and ultimately, in the case of the stereographs below, into the New York Public Library’s Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views.
The art of stereography isn’t exactly dead today – many of us will remember peering through red, handheld View-Master devices as children, and 3-D films are essentially stereography applied to cinematography – but its relationship to Los Angeles certainly changed with the advent of air travel and the city’s emergence as a cinematic backdrop. For many 19th-century viewers, these stereographs were the closest they’d ever come to glimpsing Los Angeles with their own two eyes.