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Viscerally Exciting Diversions: Stereography and Institutional Bias

Elizabeth Weber


When is an artist’s work not art? More to the point, when is a fine art photograph viewed as outside of that photographer’s body of work? While it seems logical that the work of a photographer institutionally recognized as an artist is necessarily art, the practices of museums, galleries, and other art institutions do not always follow that logic. Large sections of a body of work are sometimes underrepresented or not represented at all in exhibitions. Today, as in years past, this casting off of or different attitude toward certain photographs will happen when that work is created through the stereographic medium. In fact, I posit that an institutional bias against stereo format photographs exists. Because such photographs were historically created and disseminated differently from other types of photography, and because their association with mass production deprives them of aura, stereoscopic photographs are not typically collected or exhibited as art today, nor have they been in the past. From the beginning, stereographs were immediately visually identifiable as different from other forms of photography. Their initial existence as non-encased glass slides (fig. 1) not only looked different from the popular daguerreotype, ambrotype (fig. 2), or paper calotype but also offered a separate tactile experience and a higher price. By 1854, however, albumen print


technology and new distribution methods made stereographs into what Professor of Communication Jib Fowles calls “the first photographic mass medium.”1 What most obviously sets the stereograph apart from other photography is the illusion of depth—-Fowles describes them as “two photographs mounted on stiff card” that were “originally taken with a special camera with twin lenses set two and a half inches apart,” or “the typical distance between pupils.”2 In this way, looking at a stereograph through a special viewer reproduces natural binocular vision. The consequence, however, is threefold. First, to see the image as intended, it must be viewed through a stereoscope (fig. 3). Second, the size of the image is generally limited to what will fit onto a standard stereo card, which is approximately three and a half inches by seven inches. Finally, composition of the ideal stereo image is not necessarily comparable to ideal composition in painting or standard photography, for the stereographer should compose for depth as well as balance, value, and line. These artistic elements within compositions did not mean the stereograph was considered art at this time. Indeed, photography was generally considered science rather than art during the Victorian era. The demand for stereo photography in particular was driven not by a desire to own fine art but by


“the staunchly Protestant [impetus] of self-betterment through learning,” according to Fowles.3 Furthermore, “for late nineteenth-century Americans, visual sophistication was another causative element in personal achievement and, more pointedly, a marker of it.”4 Much like purchasing fine ceramics or wearing certain clothing, owning a stereoscope and an accompanying set of cards announced that the owner had “arrived.” Owning a stereo view of classical Greek sculpture, on the other hand, was not as prestigious or desirable as actually owning the physical artwork —the stereograph could document art, but it could not be art. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the varieties of photography accepted by the fine arts establishment increased. Photographers like F. Holland Day, Alfred Stieglitz, and Gertrude Kasebier were accepted into galleries and, eventually, museums. This group of photographers, the pictorialists, incorporated elements of impressionist painting in aesthetic values (fig. 4) as well as classical painting in areas such as theme and composition (fig. 5). Opposing documentary work in favor of established artistic conventions, the new art photography definitely did not include stereographs. The sharpness and clarity of most stereographic images was at odds with the hazy, impressionistic gum bichromates and bromoil prints of pictorialism (fig. 6). In


Kristina Wilson’s The Modern Eye: Stieglitz, MoMA, and the Art of the Exhibition, Wilson shows page after page of photographic documents illustrating the type of work Stieglitz included in gallery shows (fig. 7). Examinations of work Stieglitz chose to display when he served as gallerist, rather than photographer, show that though he favored an intimate experience with artworks, he did not include stereographs, despite stereography having the potential to be an extremely intimate medium when viewed through a hand-held stereoscope.5 Indeed, in 1915, though he had turned away from impressionistic photography and painting, he continued to exclude the stereograph.6 It still did not fit into the ideologies of gallerists and curators like Stieglitz. This turn toward what is now termed modernism culminated in Edward Steichen heading the Department of Photography at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1947, and it continued stereographic exclusion. While this aesthetic vision expanded the realm of art photography to include images that were not obviously manipulated in the darkroom as well as some documentary forms, theorist Walter Benjamin gave a name to something particular stereographs lacked--something MoMA’s patrons could find in the work that was exhibited there.


In his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Benjamin states, “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”7 Because “the presence of the original is the prerequisite to the concept of authenticity,” a mass-produced art form is inherently inauthentic.8 With a massproduced image, he says, “the quality of its presence is always depreciated,” for “by making many reproductions it substitutes a plurality of copies for a unique existence.”9 He called the nature of this unique existence the “aura,” and within it falls everything that makes an original work of art—everything from wear and tear and provenance, to connection to the artist, to a specific form and location in the physical world. Even the shadow the original object may cast contributes to the aura. Furthermore, “the unique value of the ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value,” and so mass production further separates an image from its aura by changing that use value.10 The mass-produced stereograph lacks a link to the cult of remembrance found in the daguerreotype, instead entrancing the public with “the phony spell of a commodity.”11 A photograph is always a copy of something that exists uniquely in time and space, but the art photograph, at least, bears some connection to the artist who


shot, printed, and mounted the image and is therefore closer to the aura-bearing original than its mass-produced counterpart. In particular, institutional emphasis on the aspect of the aura pertaining to the cult of the artist did not favor stereographs, which are often unsigned and bear the name of a manufacturer or distributor rather than a photographer. While some stereographs actually were made from start to finish by one person, more often, they were mass-produced prints mounted on assembly lines, far from the photographer who created the original negatives. According to Fowles, “stereography simply operated on the visible world as another resource, converted it into manipulatable units, and cultivated a profitable market for those units.”12 In “The Photographic Construction of Tourist Space in Victorian America,” Steven Hoelscher describes how between 1876 and 1880, over 13,000 stereographs from one photographer alone were distributed throughout the United States.

In the late 1880s, that same

photographer, H.H. Bennett, produced about 40,000 prints per month for both local and national distribution.13 Yet, mass produced though they were, these images were created with technical aptitude and through specific stylistic and compositional choices.


In fact, Bennett shot the negatives for these stereographs with “a powerful set of techniques for controlling the look of the resulting image--a repertoire that included choice of lenses, exposure duration, and the angles of light and camera perspective.”14 Bennett furthermore cultivated a “postfrontier aesthetic” so that his “photographs reflected and promoted a nineteenth-century tourist aesthetic” wherein “the countryside was to be rendered not only as unworked but also as a scenic and visually oriented playground for the burgeoning urban middle classes.”15 In both form and function, Bennett’s stereographs were inextricably linked to tourism during his lifetime and beyond it. The ultimate recipient of a Bennett stereograph would hold something apparently lacking in aura yet guided by a specific aesthetic, created with carefully-chosen tools, and made for a particular purpose according to the will of the photographer who created it. Contemporary viewers might note that these stereographs are furthermore well-composed for the medium, with a vantage point chosen for balance and depth within the frame (fig. 8). Still, Bennett’s work appears in the collections of historical societies, not in major museums or exclusive gallery collections. In other words, fine arts institutions view these stereographs as aura-less art objects at best, and artistic as they may sometimes be, they are not quite art.


Compounding the issue of mass-production is the issue of mass dissemination. In “Selling Stereoscopy 1890-1914: Penny Arcades, Automatic Machines and American Salesmen,” Exeter University’s Dr. John Plunkett explains how during the era of the pictorialists and early modernists, major companies had salesmen sell stereoscopes and stereographs door to door, much as they would sell encyclopedias or household hardware. Rather than any prominent producer of stereo images moving toward acceptance in the art world, the norm was selling work to a company like Underwood or Keystone, thereby becoming part of the corporate drive to profit “through using modern sales methods and …international reach.”16 Underwood, in particular, “started not as a photographic concern, but as a distribution business that sold others’ stereographs through travelling salesmen.”17 Gallerists and curators of later eras were, therefore, raised with a perception of stereography based on these practices, wherein stereographs were distributed not as art but as merchandise. By 1908, Underwood had acquired “a selection of 200,000 subjects of which around 7,000 of the most popular were regularly in stock,” including landscapes of the American West, exotic tourism images, ethnographic surveys, and documentary images of foreign wars (fig. 9).18 Upon the doorstep of World War I, Underwood and similar companies continued developing “tours”


that were “were aimed at a professional, affluent and middleclass audience” interested in enjoying “purchases as an act of conspicuous consumption,” playing “upon social aspiration” in the sales pitch.19 During this time, Underwood also promoted the “use of stereographs in the teaching of geography” in schools.20 Here, they functioned more as a supplement to the textbook than as inspirational art objects. Furthermore, stereographs were disseminated in tourist destinations, penny arcades, and amusement halls. “Penny-in-theslot” machines in public spaces meant that stereographs “began to take over from, and were often exhibited alongside, the traditional fare of travelling and fixed-venue penny shows: freaks, waxworks and gruesome melodramas,” says Plunkett.21 In “cheap penny arcades where large numbers of working-class youths gathered together,” it was increasingly the case that “risqué stereographs often infringed the boundary of good taste” (fig. 10).22 In the home or the classroom, “the stereoscope was conceived of a benign instrument of enlightenment,” but in public, the medium became one of “sensuous voyeurism.”23 Indeed, many such stereographs were literally viewed in peep show booths. These methods of stereographic distribution were penetrating new markets, but their very nature kept stereographs specifically outside the art market. Such practices continued


through World War I and were not fully replaced by their cinematic counterparts until after World War II. Following the Second World War, ideas about photography as art continued expanding. In a 1953 press release, MoMA announced an exhibition of post-war European photography, including photojournalistic images documenting prisoners of war, crowds waiting for rations, and dolls snagged in barbed wire displayed alongside abstract photographs and traditional portraits.24 It also contains personal information about the artists as well as facts about the conditions in which the artists created the photographs, establishing the “unique existence,” or aura, of each work. This press release contains no mention of a single stereograph. This exhibition was an ideological precursor to the epic “Family of Man” exhibition launched in 1955, which further embraced documentary photography, almost to the exclusion of other forms (fig. 11). Although the stereograph had long been considered documentary, something perhaps artistic but certainly not art, now its lack of aura and a corresponding bias prevented it from becoming art at a time when photojournalism could hang on the wall at MoMA next to a surrealist photograph. The next expansion of photography as art also manifests at MoMA. Steichen’s successor, John Szarkowski, promoted the snapshot aesthetic as something important in photographic art. Photographers like Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand produced work


quite different from both pictorialist ideas of photographic art and the kinds of modernism Steichen espoused. These compositions captured movement, caught people between moments, and validated subjects that had previously been considered outside the realm of art. Some of these, in particular the documentation of transgressive sexuality in Arbus’ work, were considered as inappropriate for art as the risqué stereograph of the penny arcade. Yet, the stereograph’s lack of aura and the anonymity of the typical stereographer meant that most stereographs had no place at MoMA or other similar institutions. There were, however, some notable exceptions, but even here, we see a distancing from the stereographic medium. In his highly-influential book Looking at Photographs, Szarkowski discusses stereographs but does not include them except as prints made from halved stereographic negatives, so that they resemble ordinary photographic prints. This practice extended to his curation at MoMA, as well. Although Szarkowski credits stereographic cameras with having the “small negatives” and “short focal lengths” that “gave adequate exposure at snapshot speeds” and made possible the snapshot aesthetic he valued so highly, the example of street photography included in Looking at Pictures appears as a standard print (fig. 12).25 Elsewhere in the book, Szarkowski depicts Bennett’s work similarly, praising the composition and explaining that


stereography forged “the boldest and least conventional compositions to be found in nineteenth-century photography,” but at the same time dismissing stereographs as mere “viscerally exciting” diversions and insisting on the superiority of viewing these images as enlarged prints rather than stereographs (fig. 13).26 Most prominently, his emphasis on Jacques Henri Lartigue as a photographic visionary exemplifies Szarowski’s antistereographic bias. As Kevin Moore states in Jacques Henri Lartigue: The Invention of an Artist, “an important aspect of Lartigue’s photographic output is that much of it is in stereo format.”27 In fact, “the existence of an enormous number of stereographs… printed for three-dimensional viewing just after he exposed the negatives” shows that Lartigue did not shoot the images with the intent of printing them the way that Szarkowski displayed them many years later (fig. 14).28 Moore also discusses how Lartigue considered “the illusion of depth produced by the stereograph” when he composed these photographs, and he points out the “noticeable differences in the treatment of space” in Lartigue’s non-stereographic work.29 Szarkowski likely felt that displaying the images in the landmark 1963 Lartigue show at MoMA as stereographs would distance this body of work from the later street photography with which he was trying to connect it (figs.


15 and 16), both because of the difference in format and because of perceived lack of aura. Perplexingly, many images included in the show were reprinted from Lartigue’s negatives by other people, and then mounted, framed, and grouped according to Szarkowski’s specifications. This was despite the fact that many aura-rich original stereo prints existed that had been created, start to finish, by Lartigue’s own hand. In other words, Szarkowski increased the actual aural distance from the original negative to the image appearing on the wall at MoMA. Documents of the actual presentation of the images in the exhibition exist in Moore’s book, and the sense of curatorial authorship is indeed quite strong.30 While Szarkowski intended to increase the aura of these photographs, in reality, the rejection of the stereographic medium contributed to aural loss. This kind of curatorial bias continued at MoMA, where Szarkowski served in his post until 1991, as well as at other important fine art institutions. Today, they affect the exhibition and collection of a range of photographers, including Carleton Watkins. Among the great photographers of the American West, he created many now-iconic images, some of which are currently enshrined at the Getty Museum. Of their 85 Watkins images, however, only six are stereographs.31 At the Fraenkel Gallery, a prominent San Francisco institution, there are no


stereographs, only standard prints (fig. 17).32 Literally thousands of Watkins stereographs exist today, as documented at, but they are in the possession of historical societies, state and city libraries, and university collections rather than museums, galleries, or corporate collections.33 Many existing works, rather than lacking aura, include notes made by Watkins’ own hand and were personally printed and mounted by the artist (fig. 18). Although this paper discusses the work of only a few photographers, the practices associated with their stereographic work can be generally applied to stereographic images at large. Because of the perceived or actual lack of aura created by associations with mass production and distribution, as well as the medium’s former status as a class marker, the stereographic work of many photographers generally regarded as artists is either excluded from their body of work or exhibited in a way that does not reflect the original medium. Both historically and today, fine art institutions have undervalued stereography, even when created by artists they eagerly display in other formats. Institutional bias, in many cases, colors the perception of the stereographic medium. It remains to be seen whether future generations of collectors, curators, and gallerists reassess the medium and its relationship to aura, allowing them to change institutional


practices and expose photographers like Bennett, Lartigue, and Watkins (as well as contemporary stereographers) in new ways and to new audiences.



Jib Fowles. “Stereography and the Standardization of Vision,” Journal of American Culture, Volume 17, Issue 2 (June 1994), pp. 89–93. 2

Fowles, “Stereography and the Standardization of Vision,” p. 89.


Ibid,” p. 90.


Ibid, p. 90.


Kristina Wilson. “The Intimate Gallery and the Cosmos,” in Stieglitz, MoMA, and the Art of the Exhibition, 1925-1934 (Connecticut, Yale University Press, 2009) pp. 17-53. 6

Wilson, “The Intimate Gallery and the Cosmos,” p. 25.


Walter Benjamin. “The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction,” University of Western Ontario PDF, originally published 1936., (13 April 2011). 8

Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction,” p. 3.


Ibid, p. 5.


Ibid, p. 8.


Ibid, p. 15.


Fowles, “Stereography and the Standardization of Vision,” p. 90.


Steven Hoelscher. “The Photographic Construction Of Tourist Space In Victorian America,” Geographical Review, Volume 88, Issue 4 (October 1998) pp. 548-571. 14

Hoelscher, “The Photographic Construction of Tourist Space In Victorian America,” p. 549. 15

Ibid, p. 552.


John Plunkett. “Selling Stereoscopy, 1890-1915: Penny Arcades, Automatic Machines, and American Salesmen,” Early Popular Visual Culture, Volume 6, Issue 3 (November 2008) pp. 239-255. 17

Plunkett, “Selling Stereoscopy, 1890-1915: Penny Arcades, Automatic Machines, and American Salesmen,” p. 242. 18

Ibid, p. 242.


Ibid, pp. 247-250.


Ibid, p. 251.




Ibid, p. 254.




Museum of Modern Art. ““Postwar European Art to be Shown at Museum,” MoMA Press Archives, 1953. MOMA1953_0050_45.pdf?2010 (13 April 2011). 25

John Szarkowski. Looking at Photographs, (New York, Distributed Art Publishers, 1973) pp. 54-55. 26

John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs, pp. 44-45.


Kevin Moore. “Cinema,” Jacques Henri Lartigue: The Invention of an Artist (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 129-159. 28

Moore, Jacques Henri Lartigue: The Invention of an Artist, p. 142.


Ibid, p. 143.


Kevin Moore. “Lartigue at MoMA,” Jacques Henri Lartigue: The Invention of an Artist (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2004), pp. 163-193. 31 “Artists: Watkins.” Collection. make=1989 (13 April 2011). 32

Fraenkel Gallery. “Works.” Cartleton E. Watkins. (13 April 2011). 33 The Stereoviews of Carleton Watkins. (13 April 2011).

Bibliography Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction.” University of Western Ontario, originally published 1936.

in_work%20o%20art.pdf (13 April 2011). “Online Stereoview Catalog,” The Stereoviews of Carleton Watkins. (13 April 2011). Fowles, Jib. “Stereography and the Standardization of Vision,” Journal of American Culture, Volume 17, Issue 2 (June 1994), pp. 89–93. “Works.” Cartleton E. Watkins. =0&a=30&at=1 (13 April 2011). Hoelscher, Steven. “The Photographic Construction of Tourist Space in Victorian America,” Geographical Review, Volume Issue 4 (October 1998) pp. 548-571.

88, “Artists: Watkins,” Collection. (13 April 2011).


Moore, Kevin. Jacques Henri Lartigue: The Invention of an Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.

Artist. “Postwar European Art to be Shown at Museum,” MoMA Press Archives, originally published 1953. 1953_0050_45.pdf?2010 (13 April 2011). Plunkett, John. “Selling Stereoscopy, 1890-1915: Penny Arcades, Automatic Machines, and American Salesmen,” Early Popular Visual Culture, Volume 6, Issue 3 (November 2008) pp. 239 Szarkowksi, John. Looking at Photographs. New York: Distributed Publishers, 1973. Wilson, Kristina. Stieglitz, MoMA, and the Art of the 1925-1934. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Illustrations

255. Art


Fig. 1. John K. Hillers, View of Adobe Wall Ruin, 1879. Glass stereograph slide, 5 in x 8 in. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Museum Support Center, Suitland, Maryland.

Fig. 2. Unknown photographer, Two Unidentified Women Reading Letters, between 1860 and 1870. Ambrotype in Rinhart case, 7.4 cm x 6 cm. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC.

Fig. 3. Elizabeth Weber, Holmes Stereo Viewer with Card, 2011. Digital photograph, 1103 pixels x 902 pixels. Des Plaines, Illinois.

Fig. 4. Anne Brigman, Soul of the Blasted Pine, 1908. Gelatin silver print photograph, 15 in x 18 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

Fig. 5. F. Holland Day, Saint Sebastian in Loincloth, 1906. Platinum photograph with hand coloring on textured paper, 9 他 in x 7 他 in. The Louise Imogen Guiney Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

Fig. 6. Keystone View Company, A Japanese Shoe Shop, date unknown (early twentieth century). Silver gelatin stereograph on 3.4 in x 7 in card. Private collection.

Fig. 7. Unknown Photographer, Untitled. Photograph of Alfred Stieglitz’ 291 Gallery, original dimensions not listed. Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keefe Archive, Yale University, New Haven.

Fig. 8. H. H. Bennett, IN AND ABOUT THE DELLS OF THE WISCONSIN, between 1843 and 1908. Stereo photograph on 3.5 in x 7 in card. Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Dells.

Fig. 9. Keystone View Company, Father and Children Showing Costumes, Ramallah, Palestine, 1905. Stereo photograph mounted on 3.5 in x 7 in card. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

Fig. 10. Exhibit Supply Company, Pretty and Peppy, 1926. Unmounted stereo photograph, size not listed. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

Fig. 11. Museum of Modern Art, Family of Man Exhibition Cover, 1955. Exhibition catalog cover, approximately 8.5 inches x 11 inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Fig. 12. Arnold Genthe, The Street of the Gamblers, between 1896 and 1906. 9 ¾ in x 11 7/8 in. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, DC.

Fig. 13. H.H. Bennett, Sugar Bowl, 1889. 15 ¾ in x 16 ¼ in. Society, Wisconsin Dells.

Wisconsin Historical

Fig. 14. Jacques Henri Lartigue, Cousin Bichonnade in Flight, 1905 (printed later). Silver gelatin photograph, 9 ½ in x 13 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles.

Fig. 15. Garry Winogrand, Untitled from Women are Beautiful, 1950-1973. Gelatin silver print, 8 11/16 in x 13 1/16 in. The Estate of Garry Winogrand.

Fig. 16. Jacques Henri Lartigue, Untitled, undated. Photograph, back cover of John Szarkowski’s The Photographs of Jacques-Henri Lartigue, 1963. Dimensions not listed. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Fig. 17. Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Falls (River View), 1861. Albumen print from wet collodion negative, dimensions not listed. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Fig. 18. Carleton Watkins, Yosemite Falls, between 1861 and 1873. Stereo photograph mounted on 3 ½ in x 7 in card.

Viscerally Exciting Diversions: Stereography and Institutional Bias  
Viscerally Exciting Diversions: Stereography and Institutional Bias  

Discusses stereographic photographers such as HH Bennett, Jacques Henri Lartigue, and Carleton Watkins.