The Beckers Viewer

Nineteenth century Americans were fascinated with photography. The first photographic experiments were made in Europe during the 1830s, and by the 1860s wet plate photography had become a lucrative business in America. Hundreds of studio photographers cranked out the most popular photographic product of the day: customer portraits printed on visiting cards, a Victorian version of the selfie.

Also popular was the stereograph, an early form of 3D in which two nearly identical photos were mounted on stiff 4×8 inch cards; when seen through the lenses of a special viewer they produced a three-dimensional image. Families would assemble large collections of stereo cards; topics included travel, anthropological, historical, and otherwise educational photos, religious subjects, fine arts, humorous subjects and news of the day. So many of these cards were produced that they are still ubiquitous in antique stores and on sites like Ebay.

Eadweard Muybridge was an eccentric English inventor, shady wild west character, and erstwhile hobnobber with the rich and famous whose photographic experiments would eventually, through the machinations of Thomas Edison, lead to the invention of cinema. In the 1860s, not being suited to the sedate indoor life of a studio photographer, Muybridge took his photographic equipment outdoors and became one of the earliest landscape photographers in America. His stereo views of Yosemite Valley and Alaska were eagerly purchased by Americans who could never otherwise experience such places.

One of Muybridge’s early projects foreshadows motion pictures by about thirty years. He made a series of stereo views of San Francisco taken from atop a hill on the edge of town. By turning the camera slowly left to right and taking serial photos, he made a panoramic representation of the city. Around this time a device was being produced in New York called the Alexander Beckers Viewer; it was a stereograph viewer that could hold up to fifty cards, and the user turned a knob to flip between views. When Muybridge’s panoramic San Francisco views were placed in the Beckers Viewer they produced the effect of what would later, in filmmaking, be called “panning.”

(Ball 75)

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