Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Fossilized Shadows: Italy through the Stereoscope: A Formidable Book of Travels

A Formidable Book of Travels

It seemed to us that it might possibly awaken an interest in some of our readers, if we should carry them with us through a brief stereographic trip,—describing, not from places, but from the photographic pictures of them which we have in our own collection. [...] But the reader must remember that this trip gives him only a glimpse of a few scenes selected out of our gallery of a thousand. To visit them all, as tourists visit the realities, and report what we saw, with the usual explanations and historical illustrations, would make a formidable book of travels.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes 24

Whether applied to familial memories or exotic places, the power of the stereoscope is indeed to make us “leave the body behind us and sail away,” in space and time, “like disembodied spirits.” Virtual travel best exemplifies the possibilities opened by this new technology:

These sights, from Alps, temples, palaces, pyramids, are offered you for a trifle, to carry home with you, that you may look at them at your leisure, by your fireside, with fair weather, when you are in the mood, without catching cold, without following a “valet-de-place,” in any order of succession,—from a glacier to Vesuvius, from Niagara to Memphis,—as long as you like, and breaking off as suddenly as you like;—and you, native of this incomparably dull planet, have hardly troubled yourself to look at this divine gift, which, if an angel had brought it from some sphere nearer to the central throne, would have been thought worthy of the celestial messenger to whom it was entrusted!25

It is not surprising that the “formidable book of travels” imagined by Holmes was later developed into a comprehensive travel system. This was achieved by two brothers from Ottawa, Kansas: Elmer and Bert Underwood, who, in 1882, started a small business first distributing stereographic series published by other companies, then producing their own. Within a few years, Underwood’s “sun sculptures” sold all over North America, and soon the enterprising brothers were able to open a branch in Liverpool, then moved to London, from which they extended their operations to European markets as well. By the mid-1890s, the firm was active throughout Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Japan, and Latin America, and its archive of photographs taken by local professional photographers amounted to thousands of negatives and nine hundred titles (fig. 6). Patented on August 21,1900, under the title of Educational System, the Underwood Stereograph Travel System inaugurates a new kind of virtual travel through images: a late nineteenth-century forerunner of Google Earth, meant to ignite the geographic and ethnographic imagination of young and old alike. As Paolo Parmeggiani writes: “The distinct novelty of the travel books published by Underwood & Underwood was not their use of stereoviews, but their innovative compilation of different media types: namely, the stereoviews, the guidebook text, and the maps. The relationship between images and text stresses the cultural potential of the three-dimensional stereoscopic effect.”26 This is also the case for “Italy through the Stereoscope,” the stereographic kit that is the main object of our chapter: complete with maps and a detailed guidebook, the set employs “a complex apparatus of visual and textual components, a system of geolocation capable of creating a perceptive experience that today we would define as multimodal and immersive.”27

Seated in his armchair by the fire, in the cozy privacy of his home, the bourgeois virtual traveler is able to survey and scrutinize the whole world as he pleases, sailing motionless beyond the walls of his library, comparable to a cosmorama for the modern man. As an Underwood & Underwood advertisement states: “What the Telephone Does for the Ear, the Underwood Travel System Does for the Eyes. Gives direct access from every home, classroom and student’s room to the most important, interesting and fascinating places around the world.” Another ad shows a well-dressed gentleman looking into a stereoscope while stretching his arms over a globe which tellingly shows the continents of Africa and South America, with the words: “To be within arm’s reach of distant countries it is only necessary to be within arm’s reach of the Underwood stereograph travel system.”28 A new stage in the evolution of virtual travel from map to tour is at work, recombining map and tour into a single, miniaturized, personal system: as a domestic handheld gadget, the stereoscope is like a third eye, and the sculptural images it shows have the uncanny power not just to evoke but to replace the real world, projecting travelers into a third dimension populated by “fossilized shadows”—a ghostly reality as evident and even more uncannily present than the reality left behind. Through these virtual travel kits, the parallel operations of reading, mapping, and viewing are combined in what amounts to a cognitive and perceptual surrogate for an individually customized traveling experience, as though the users were induced to discover on their own the pleasures and wonders of virtual tourism. As Zotti Minici writes:

These were not simply a series of images illustrating the beauty spots of a given destination, but a carefully thought-out sequence showing landscapes, scenes of urban life, buildings of various kinds, agricultural, artisanal and industrial activities and traditions and customs of populations living in various parts of the world, so as to offer the armchair traveler an exhaustive overall view of the entire globe.29

While there is a precise order in the sequencing of images, the users have the sensation of actively designing and following their own itineraries on a map. One of the Underwood brothers is portrayed in this picture illustrating how the virtual travel kit should be used: “His finger is pointing to the book he is reading and a map of Rome is open beneath it. Behind him, the library shows the entire collection of different ‘Tours’ from around the world” (fig. 7).30 The maps establish the specific point of view of the stereographs, representing “the topological relationship between the viewer and the subjects inside a larger spatial context.”31 Once they have established their positions on the map and oriented themselves, the travelers can proceed to the “street view” of the stereographs. The various chapters of the guidebook are organized and numbered according to the positions of the camera from which the photographs were taken, which, combined, produce each stereographic view. Inscribed both on the front and back of the stereographs, the captions coincide with the descriptions of the accompanying guidebook, like the sequential, numbered stages of a complete narrative itinerary—a format clearly based on the pull bills or brochures for the moving panorama shows, translated here from a theatrical entertainment into an autonomous, interactive activity. Complementing each other, the visual and verbal components of the virtual travel set produce a sort of transmedia autonarrative experience, culminating in the visual immersion provided by peering into the stereoscope.32

“Rome through the Stereoscope is, in essence, an exercise in geographical imagination,” writes Douglas Klahr in an essay devoted to a close analysis of the virtual experience provided by an Underwood kit of forty-six stereographs of the Eternal City: “Five maps were included in the book, and these possessed the richest nexus of text-image relationships, for the reader not only had to master map reading, but also reading the legend by which things were identified” (fig. 8).33 As a multimodal tool, the stereoscopic kit thus required from the user a series of overlapping visual and cognitive operations, “whether mentally traversing the map or using the map while actually in the city of Rome,” making the total experience “a complex, multilayered one”: one in which an “allocentric” (survey) and an “egocentric” (route) perspective work in tandem.34 The very language used in the guidebooks contributes to the immersion of the user in the scene, full as it is of expressions “that refer to the idea of physical presence—phrases like ‘turning now to the right we see,’ or ‘behind us,’” a full deployment of the language already used by Holmes in the article published thirty-five years earlier.35 This is a crucial point for us. Indeed, Klahr writes, these interactive activities could work either for a completely virtual travel experience from a remote location or as the enhancement of an actual touristic experience, superimposing the virtual on the real: “At times, viewers are asked to retrace their steps, producing a complex assemblage of cognitive demands, regardless of whether viewers were armchair travelers or actually standing in Rome with book [and stereoscope] in hand.”36

The complete traveling system conceived by Underwood & Underwood thus represents a perfect example of what we have described as the realization of the virtual and the virtualization of the real, forming the two sides of nineteenth-century “virtual realism” as a representation system turned into a system of cultural reproduction: the product is a technologically mediated cognitive experience that both enhances and replaces our immediate perception of the “real.” Standing on the spot from where the photographs of the scene in front of them were taken, virtual tourists who were actually in Rome or Venice could switch from looking at the scene with their naked eye to viewing the same scene through the artificial eye of the stereoscope. What they perceived, in this combination of natural and artificial vision, was a kind of “actualization of the virtual,” a reality both augmented and substantiated by the apparatus, not dissimilar to the one experienced inside the Selva’s casotto —made more evident and tangible in its double sculptural and shadowy presence.37

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