Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: Stereoscopic Travel

Further Insights

Stereoscopic Travel

In Holmes’s words, the wonders of the stereoscope acquire a truly phantasmagoric quality, extolling what otherwise risks being underappreciated as a simple gadget even by many people “of cultivation and taste.” In order to demonstrate the power of these images, Holmes flips through his personal collection of stereographs, taking his readers on an instantaneous journey across eastern America that ends in New York Harbor, on the way to Europe. Velocity is also a factor in this enhanced experience. Indeed, as this early twentieth-century advertisement boasts, stereoscopic journeys around the globe could cut in half the time conventionally employed by panoramic tours such as the one offered by Story’s “’Round the World” (fig. 4). In order to convey the novelty of the stereograph as a “sun sculpture,” Holmes dwells on a famous snapshot of Broadway, part of Edward Anthony’s “Instantaneous Views of New York” (1859) (fig. 5).16 It is the suspended movement of the people crowding the scene that catches Holmes’s, and through his description, our eye:

Here we are in the main street of the great city. This is Mr. Anthony’s miraculous instantaneous view in Broadway. It is the Oriental story of the petrified city made real to our eyes. The character of it is, perhaps, best shown by the use we make of it in our lectures, to illustrate the physiology of walking. Every foot is caught in its movement with such suddenness that it shows as clearly as if quite still. We are surprised to see, in one figure, how long the stride is,—in another, how much the knee is bent,—in a third, how curiously the heel strikes the ground before the rest of the foot,—in all, how singularly the body is accommodated to the action of walking.17

In the “Orientalized” view of New York as a kind of archaeological site, showing the footprints of the living in the very act of being imprinted, movement is shown as stillness and, conversely, stillness conveys movement: like in a moving panorama, with the augmented realism of a photographic image. This observation anticipates by at least a decade the chronophotographic experiments of Étienne-Jules Maray and Edward Muybridge. Moreover, seen through the stereoscope, a kind of multiplanar magnifying lens, the closeness of the scene to the eye enables an almost forensic attention to every detail (evidence that cannot be tampered with):

But what a wonder it is, this snatch at the central life of a mighty city as it rushed by in all its multitudinous complexity of movement! Hundreds of objects in this picture could be identified in a court of law by their owners...The old woman would miss an apple from that pile which you see glistening on her stand. The young man whose back is to us could swear to the pattern of his shawl. The gentleman between two others will no doubt remember that he had a headache the next morning, after this walk he is taking. Notice the caution with which the man driving the dapple-gray horse in a cart loaded with barrels holds his reins,—wide apart, one in each hand.18

Like in a circular panorama, the attention to detail produces a new kind of evidence, based on an enhanced “presence,” caught at a glance, in which the meticulous observer can also read intentional or unintentional motions and motives: the effect is a kind of psychological virtual realism that not only duplicates reality but, in each snapshot, also reveals layers of reality hidden under the surface or frozen in place. These two elements, the intrinsically dynamic nature of stereoscopic vision and the wealth of details it reveals, make this device a perfect tool for a traveling experience even more realistically immersive than that offered by the panorama. Whereas, as we have seen, mid-nineteenth-century panoramas often used photography as a source for their pictorial reproduction of reality, the stereoscope goes directly to reality as its unmediated source. In the panorama, perspectival techniques produced a mediated representational effect for the naked eye; in the stereoscope, a technological manipulation based on binocular disparity directly affects and modifies the viewer’s perception of the world. If in the panorama, as a painterly medium, the reality effect was embedded in the object, in the stereoscope it is paradoxically embedded in the disembodied subject. As Jonathan Crary writes: “Like the phenakistiscope and other nonprojective optical devices, the stereoscope also required the corporeal adjacency and immobility of the observer.”19 If, however, in the eighteenth century the relationship between the eye and the optical device was essentially metaphoric, as exemplified by the mondo nuovo, toward the end of the nineteenth century this relation becomes metonymic: the eye and the device are increasingly integrated, as in a prosthetic relationship. This also implies a more radical abstraction from the social context, compared with the one within which a customer peered into a mondo nuovo as into a miniature theater in the streets of Venice, or a visitor looked through the multiplying lenses of Abbé Gazzera’s artistic cosmorama. As a result, the vision of the “new world,” or of a world seen as anew, becomes a direct effect of the viewer’s enhanced sight. The three-dimensional realism of the object is the product of a cognitive effect that, thanks to the device, not only takes place in front of the observer’s eye but is also directly transmitted to the observer’s brain. What was perceived as a faithful representation, to the point of being exactly like real life, is now conceived as a direct “experience” of the world—the image itself becomes “real.”

“We are all ready to embark now. Here is the harbor; and there lies the Great Eastern at anchor,—the biggest island that ever got adrift,” writes Holmes, introducing his exemplary stereoscopic tour in a way reminiscent of Story’s grand panoramic voyage, “‘Round the World.” Yet, he immediately pauses to dwell on the historic moment in which his stereographic cruise is about to sail away from American shores. He is writing in 1861, the year of Italian unification, and, more compellingly for an American audience, the year marking the ominous beginning of the Civil War: “Stay one moment,” Holmes writes, “they will ask us about secession and the revolted States,—it may be as well to take a look at Charleston, for an instant, before we go.”20 Like Story’s Garibaldi panorama, the stereoscope has the power of capturing a snapshot of history-in-the-making; and like a panorama lecturer, Holmes takes his audience on the equivalent of a battleground survey, at a glance, as in a photographic flash: “In the distance, to the right, Fort Sumter, looking remote and inaccessible [...] How ghostly, yet how real, it looms up out of the dim atmosphere.”21 Indeed, stereoscopic photography is the perfect medium to vividly capture for the mind the menace of the war looming at the horizon, as Holmes himself writes to the readers of the Atlantic Monthly, in terms encapsulating the mood of a nation on the edge: “War reduces facts to their simple elements in its red-hot crucible, with its black flux of carbon and sulphur and nitre.”22 Better to flee a land about to be turned into an inferno, fly across the ocean in the blink of an eye and, after a quick tour of London, cross over to Europe and head to Italy, the final destination of Holmes’s quick stereographic tour—and ours: “Almost everything from Italy is interesting,” he writes, “the ruins of Rome, the statues of the Vatican, the great churches, all pass before us, but in a flash, as we are expressed by them on our ideal locomotive.”23 To the illusory immersion of the grand panorama, and the scrolling motion of the moving panorama, is added the even faster motion of flipping through the stereographs, whisking viewers away from their surroundings as disembodied spirits—and inscribing them more deeply into their minds.

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