It all started with gift cards inside boxes from Weetabix and the ability to send a plastic 3D viewer, priced at one and six pence. For Brian May, a 10-year-old who would go on to become a rock superstar with Queen, the result was a fascination with stereoscopy.
This week, May is publishing a book dedicated to the story of her passion. Stereoscopy: the Dawn of 3D, written by art historian Denis Pellerin, contains images from the May collection of approximately 100,000 photographs – including two unpublished images by Charles Dickens – and comes with its own foldable viewer . May and Pellerin are also giving a talk organized by the British Library and King’s College London on Wednesday.
The book focuses on the birth of stereoscopy in the mid-19th century and the enthusiasm with which the Victorians embraced the 3D craze. “People had a stereoscope and a stack of cards on the living room table, and when friends came over they would watch stereos. It was a window to the world, ”said Pellerin.
The images were of two photographs of the same subject, taken from points of view at roughly the same distance as human eyes. Looking at these images through the stereoscope, the two images appeared as a single 3D image.
Stereoscopy has proven to be a “roller coaster with peaks and periods of total oblivion and neglect,” he added. After the Victorians, it experienced a revival during the First World War, and again in the 1950s when young May went into ecstasies.
Recalling his Weetabix gifts, he said: “There were two little flat images of hippos, but when you looked through the viewer the animals jumped at you with glorious 3D realism. You felt like you could touch them. Once you experience this, you never want to go back to flatbed photography again.
Another revival took place in the 1980s, and in 2009 “we had [the film] Avatar and every TV you bought were 3D ready. Where is he now ? Everything has disappeared.
The book credits Charles Wheatstone with being the inventor of the stereoscope. “He was denied his rightful place, others claimed they made it up, and some of those lies have survived until very recently,” May said. The book sets the record straight, he added.
Among the images in the book is a stereoscopic portrait of Dickens taken moments before he began reading excerpts from his Christmas stories to an audience in 1858, and another of the author writing at his desk. The moon’s first stereo is also included, alongside dozens of images from Victorian life.
The instruments were advertised in The Times “at unprecedented low prices”, starting at six pence, under the heading “No home without a stereoscope”. Cards were distributed with magazines and distributed in specialized libraries.
Stereoscopy “takes a little time to appreciate,” says Pellerin. “It’s like fine wine, not Coca-Cola – you can’t just drink it, it’s something you sip. You can’t just glance at a stereo. You have to look at it, examine all the details. And that’s what the Victorians were very good at.
May, who has a doctorate in astrophysics, is in the process of acquiring another set of images that will make her collection of stereos the largest in the world. He transfers them all to the Brian May stereoscopic archives.
“It’s a gift for the nation. It will be a national archive long after I die. It’s like founding a museum so that future generations can enjoy this incredible material.