Stereo Photography: Early Virtual Reality

color photograph of wood and metal stereo card viewer with stereograph of images of trees and a military fort

Stereo card viewer. Ms0110 Blazer family papers. With Stereo view of Fort Marcy, Santa Fe. 00040613, Amador family papers.

Stereo photography has been around for nearly as long as photography itself. In 1832, Charles Wheatstone discovered the process of creating a three-dimensional illusion using two-dimensional images and a special viewer. I won’t pretend to fully understand how this all works, but here is a simple explanation as told to me. Hold a finger out directly in front of you. Look at it, closing one eye and then the other. Your finger appears to move. Since our eyes are offset, each eye sees things at slightly different angles. Your brain combines these two images to create the three-dimensional world we live in.

Wheatstone’s discovery involved two drawings and mirrors. Until the development of paper-based photographic processes, the reflections and metallic surfaces of earlier processes (daguerreotype, tintypes, etc.) were problematic to the stereoscope. These new processes, combined with British scientist David Brewster’s portable stereoscope, helped launch 3-D photography. The stereoscope debuted at the London International Exhibition in 1851, where Queen Victoria became enamored with the illusion. The Queen’s interest sparked a mass production of stereo photographs and viewers, with companies like the London Stereoscope Company producing 10,000 stereographs by 1856. Interest soon spread to the United States where Oliver Wendell Holmes, physician and poet, perfected the handheld stereoscope still in use today.


Views of far-away places were popular subjects for stereograph producers. These three-dimensional photographs allowed viewers to immerse themselves in places they may have only dreamt of visiting. Especially at a time when travel was too costly or too dangerous. Stereographs were also marketed to the classroom as teaching tools for subjects like geography, history, civics, and fine arts. Sets of stereographs were sold to schools with accompanying guidebooks and teaching points. One of the largest producers of stereographs in the United States, Keystone View Company, had its own education department responsible for selling directly to schools. The University of California, Riverside has a collection of over 350,000 stereo photographs and negatives produced by Keystone View Company, Underwood & Underwood, and other stereoscopic companies. Nearly 40,000 of these images can be viewed online.


color photograph of homemade stereoscope using cereal box cardboard

My cool-looking, but nonfunctioning homemade stereoscope.

In Archives and Special Collections, we have several collections of stereographs. Most of them can be seen in 2-D in our photo database by searching the keyword stereo. There are views of locations all over the world, including Paris, France; London, England; Alexandria, Egypt; and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Additionally, we have stereo photographs produced locally and around New Mexico. If you want to view the images in 3-D, we have a stereoscope available for use in our research room. You can also attempt to build a stereoscope and make your own stereographs. There are numerous tutorials available online. I attempted to build the one found here (a link to the printable template can be found in the video description). The construction process was fairly straightforward, but I was unsuccessful in getting it to work properly. If I figure out where I went wrong, I’ll be sure to add an update here.


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