Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Fossilized Shadows: Italy through the Stereoscope: Sun-Sculptures and Fossilized Shadows

Sun Sculptures and Fossilized Shadows

Even the best pictures we still feel to be but pictures; they do not create the illusions of reality, solidity, depth. The best in this kind are but shadows. But with the stereoscope the wonder of photography is brought to its culmination.
—George J. Smith, New York 1
Distant Shadows! I believe that to peer into you requires some optical aid, and this is what turns you upside down.
- Italo Svevo2

In this last chapter and simulation, we focus on the stereoscope, the device that most effectively foreshadows the immersive experience of contemporary digital tools and, from many points of view, was the crowning achievement of nineteenth-century virtual realism. Transforming virtual travel into a sedentary activity, removed from the social context in which popular optical spectacles once thrived, the stereoscope combines in itself several features of the devices we have examined in previous chapters. A portable and miniaturized “peep-show” like the mondo nuovo, the stereoscope allows the viewer to survey the globe, making each image vividly “present,” like in the panorama. Turning retinal pictures or representations of the world into inner impressions of the mind, like a camera obscura, the stereoscope produces a simulated immersive experience as tangible as a reversed phantasmagoria, giving the user the illusion of being physically transported to a remote place and time—an Elsewhere as realistic, and perhaps even more realistic, than the real world. In short, the stereoscope turns virtual travel into a thoroughly voyeuristic act, fulfilling Giandomenico’s Mondo Nuovo prophecy. Yet, as this final chapter will show, an unintended “polemoscopic” effect, an involuntary diversion of the gaze, is also hidden in the working of this little machine.

In a famous article published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes extolled the wonder of a modern technology that realized the theory of ancient atomists, such as Democritus of Abdera and Lucretius: they thought that “forms, effigies, membranes, or films [...] are perpetually shed from the surfaces of solids, as bark is shed by trees”; these “evanescent films may be seen in one of their aspects in any clear, calm sheet of water, in a mirror, in the eye of an animal by one who looks at it in front, but better still by the consciousness behind the eye in the ordinary act of vision.”3 Thanks to this new technology, as Holmes later wrote, “we are now flaying our friends and submitting to be flayed ourselves, every few years or months or days, by the aid of the trenchant sunbeam which performed the process for Marsyas,” like Apollo (the Sun) with the poor satyr Marsyas in the Greek myth; or like Belzoni, using different techniques to “skin” the figures depicted on the walls of Seti’s tomb in order to transport them, virtually, to London.4 The most recent developments of the invention by “Prometheus Daguerre” (daguerrotype), gave a new meaning to such an operation:

We lift an impalpable scale from the surface of the Pyramids. We slip off from the dome of St. Peter’s that other imponderable dome which fitted it so closely that it betrays every scratch on the original. We skim off a thin, dry cuticle from the rapids of Niagara, and lay it on our unmoistened paper without breaking a bubble or losing a speck of foam. We steal a landscape from its lawful owners, and defy the charge of dishonesty. We skin the flints by the wayside, and nobody accuses us of meanness.5

Having established its ability to “skin” the outside world, laser-like, Holmes goes on to extol the emotional appeal of photography, as reflected in the midcentury fashion of the carte-de-visite or the family album portrait. It is time, he says, to reverse the angle and refocus the power of photography from exteriority to interiority:

The footprints of thought, of passion, of purpose are all treasured in these fossilized shadows. [...] Our own eyes lose the images pictured on them. Parents sometimes forget the faces of their own children in a separation of a year or two. But the unfading artificial retina which has looked upon them retains their impress, and a fresh sunbeam lays this on the living nerve as if it were radiated from the breathing shape. How these shadows last, and how their originals fade away!6

Holmes’s words echo what Elizabeth Barrett wrote in a letter to Mary Russell Mitford, back in 1843: “It is not merely the likeness which is precious in such cases—but the association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing…the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever!”7 To these uncanny powers of photography—able to lift the effigy from objects and conjure up a mnemonic double of dead or absent beings—the stereoscope, invented by Charles Wheatstone in 1838 and perfected into a handheld visor by David Brewster in 1849, adds another mesmerizing property, an “astonishing illusion of solidity,” thus completing “the effect which so entrances the imagination” (figs. 1–3).8 Not just the “skin” is lifted from these bodies—their entire corporeality is captured by the camera. This is obtained through a simple trick, by decomposing monocular vision into a binocular one and recomposing the view, almost magically, in the mind of the observer: each eye is presented with the same image seen from a slightly different angle, and through the apparatus, the two photographs coalesce again in a single image, only enhanced to provide a vivid impression of depth and solidity (stereon means “solid” in Greek).9 Color is secondary to form in this illusion of a paradoxically ghostly yet almost hypnotic realism: lifting the surface from the body, subjected to the mutable conditions of light, allows the “form” to appear in all its impermanence—like an x-ray of things, but one that preserves an uncanny semblance to life, a three-dimensional corporeality, similar to what we perceive in “a dream-like exaltation of the faculties, a kind of clairvoyance, in which we seem to leave the body behind us and sail away into one strange scene after another, like disembodied spirits,” an effect also comparable to a hypnotic state.10

Stereoscopic photography inaugurates a new stage in the realistic virtualization of the world: “In fact, matter as a visible object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which form is shaped,” Holmes writes.11 The reduction of color to form, the chiaroscuro technique in which the sun itself is master, is in fact a play of shadows, of positive and negative: the stereoscope makes these shadows tangible.12 This “painting machinery”—as Holmes calls it—produces an exchange between physical and perceptual properties, as “the shadows of the camera-picture become the lights of the glass-picture.”13 Seen through the stereoscope, things float in space, corporeal yet disembodied, with a paradoxically neutral iridescence that simulates motion and animation, in a way reminiscent of Algarotti’s description of the effects of the camera obscura quoted in Chapter 2:

As to motion, though of course it is not present in stereoscopic pictures, except in those toy-contrivances which have been lately introduced, yet it is wonderful to see how nearly the effect of motion is produced by the slight difference of light on the water or on the leaves of trees as seen by the two eyes in the double-picture.14

A kind of vibrating spectral life takes shape in front of our eyes as we look through this contraption: a unique “delineation” makes of a stereograph a “sun sculpture” rather than a “sun picture,” as an ordinary photograph is, raising the photographic reality effect to a new level. An enhanced kind of “evidence,” difficult to tamper with, is produced by this disembodied sculptural medium.15 This dual effect, simultaneously spectral and corporeal, is somewhat reminiscent of the terms describing Belzoni’s somatascopia. Whereas there, however, a three-dimensional effigy emanated from a real body enveloped in shadows, here it seems that a tangible body radiates directly from disembodied and colorless shadows. Yet, the result is similar to Belzoni’s Real Phantasmagoria: the facsimile of reality is like a layer lifted from the real thing, condensing its evanescent substance—its aura—and with it all the emotional properties of the thing itself.

Chapter 6 hero image: Underwood & Underwood (publisher). Victims of the great disaster August 24, A.D. 79, Pompei Museum

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