Michigan in 3-D
Looking into the past
by Stephanie Douglass
Of the more than fifty stereographs on display in the exhibit "Michigan in 3-D," one appears to be a fake.
The exhibit, presented by the U-M Bentley Historical Library, brings together new and old 3-D technologies. The basis of the exhibit is the library's collection of original nineteenth-century stereoscopic cards of Michigan people and settings. A stereoscopic card, for those unfamiliar with how one looks or works, is a mount holding two adjacent 2-D photographs of the same subject, taken from slightly different angles. When viewed through a handheld instrument called a stereoscope, or stereopticon, they produce a 3-D image.
To make the 3-D images for this exhibit, each card was scanned, and its two photos were overlapped and aligned to create a single image, which was then processed with red, green, and blue filters. The resulting twenty-first-century stereograph is a tinted and blurry picture whose depth is unlocked when you put on a pair of those flimsy red-and-blue glasses.
But back to the fake. While the card is an authentic antique, it seems this stereograph's Victorian photographer tried to create the illusion of depth through a camera trick that, while clever, wasn't entirely successful. This artifice of artifice just doesn't "pop" like its neighbors do. Its flatness was something I noticed upon first glance, yet didn't think much of, since dimension and immensity varies with each stereograph. I was willing to overlook it for not being the Grand Canyon of stereographs until the exhibit's curator, Matt Adair, singled it out and helpfully explained that its insipidness can be attributed to the "twin seahorses." They're actually identical bits of debris that appear in nearly the same spot on both images of the original stereoscopic card. Their presence suggests that the photographer mimicked a stereo camera's two separate lenses by using a camera with a single (dirty) lens to take two consecutive pictures of the subject. (I'll let you locate the picture yourself.)
In addition to depth, the collection offers us
a broad look at Michigan in the latter half of the nineteenth century. From Detroit's Woodward Avenue, unpaved and speckled with horse-drawn carriages, to the UP, including Pictured Rocks' cathedral caverns and the relatively pristine Michigamme Drug Store, with glimpses of the lumber and mining industries in between, to a genteel Grosse Pointe farm, it's a postcard view of Michigan, certainly, but one with jolting details: the gleaming flank of a horse; the axe-handle-distance between a man and an old tree; a multitude of blooming buttercups and daisies; and a long birch bark canoe. These seemingly minor projections and bulges are particulars that, for some of us, lack measure. To gaze into the past in this way--even through the present's red-blue filter--is to be reminded of the smaller daily distances and profundities unique to an era.
The full exhibit--much recommended--is currently on display inside the library and on its website at bentley.umich.edu/exhibits/mich3D/. To view it at home, you'll need a pair of red-and-blue glasses (see website for instructions on requesting a free pair).
[Originally published in June, 2012.]