The 3D re-release of the 1997 film, Titanic, has not only continued to feed the Hollywood frenzy, it has also awakened memories of my experiences with a different kind of 3D, one that I prefer by far – still pictures. Until you’ve experienced it, you can’t imagine the jaw-dropping realism that’s possible with sharp, properly viewed stereo (3D) photos.
I can’t say that I really remember stereopticons* being around during my childhood – their heyday was much earlier – but they popularized stereo viewing in the early days and there were still plenty of them around while I was growing up, even if they were put away in boxes. In fact, they’re still around and many collectors enjoy looking at the old stereo pictures, fascinated by stunningly sharp views of everything from period scenes to civil war battlegrounds, strewn with bodies. I know, because in the early 1980s I collected old stereoviews for a while myself, but I then moved on to something else — modern 3D photography.
By then the camera-buying public had moved away from stereo photography, which had reached its height in popularity in the 1950s, so I had to search the ‘used’ shelves of camera stores to find what I needed. I started with the Viewmaster, which was a much more highly-crafted system than what you might imagine when looking at current brightly-colored plastic viewers. The camera was a precision instrument, capable of the very sharp focus needed for the tiny images on the reel, which you could assemble yourself after having the film developed. But it was a complicated and tricky process so I eventually moved on to something that suited me a little better.
Although there were a number of good used stereo cameras still around in the 1980s, one of the best was from the biggest name in photography – Kodak – and I was able to swap the Viewmaster for a near-mint unit. Its system of use was closer to that of conventional cameras at the time, because you’d just shoot a roll of film and then send it in to a processor. Luckily, there were still a few around who had the equipment to cut and mount the transparencies in matched pairs on cardboard slides, ready for viewing.
I haven’t taken any stereo pictures in many years, and I doubt that there are still processors around to make the slides even if I did. But I still have the camera, along with lots of slides from those days, and I still have the binocular viewer to look at them. Sometimes I do just that, and I’m still amazed at how lifelike the people in the pictures appear. My long-deceased parents, my kids and their cousins – all adults now – look ready to jump out of the pictures.
Of course, the whole 3D thing is an illusion, a trick played through our eyes, but this is one time I don’t mind being fooled.
*Actually a misnomer, but now accepted in common usage.