Jonathan Potter, Looking at Victorians looking at photographs: Decoding nineteenth-century stereoscopic experience

Jonathan Potter tutors and lectures at Coventry University. He recently graduated with a PhD from the University of Leicester and is currently working on a monograph provisionally entitled Discourses of Vision: Seeing, Thinking, Writing in the Nineteenth Century. This blog post accompanies his recent JVC article, which can be downloaded here.

'Astounding Apparition!' (ghost photography). Late 19th century. Victoria and Albert Museum.
'Astounding Apparition!' (ghost photography). Late 19th century. Victoria and Albert Museum.

In the world of gothic television and film, the phonograph –essentially a box of eerie dead voices – makes a frequent appearance. So too Victorian photographs – especially spirit photographs- continue to unnerve and unsettle twenty – first century viewers. Only recently, the first episode of the BBC’s The Living and the Dead featured both the phonographic voice of a ghost and the photograph of the protagonist’s dead child.

Yet it is a curious fact that not all nineteenth-century technologies have returned to haunt our screens. A particularly curious example is the stereoscope. This was a hugely popular Victorian technology that entertained people of all ages in parlours up and down the country throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. Using two images side by side, the stereoscope generated a sense of three-dimensional depth in flat photographic images which were viewed privately through a peep-show-like ‘scope’. Combine the privacy of the gaze and the strange quality of seemingly deriving life-like depth from flatness, and the stereoscope seems a device primed for the supernatural shenanigans of a show like The Living and the Dead.

An obvious difficulty lies in the rendering the sense of stereoscopic depth on the flatness of a television screen. Intriguingly, this very movement – from stereoscopic depth to flat screen – proves fatalistic (in a very literal sense) in at least one Victorian short story. This story, anonymously published in The Ladies Cabinet of Fashion in 1859 and titled simply ‘The Photograph’, tells the tale of a young woman whose fiancé, a sailor, goes to sea, leaving her with a stereograph of himself. She looks at this likeness of him on a daily basis. Such is her involvement with his stereoscopic image that when she awakes at night from nightmares, it comforts her much as you might imagine the real lover doing.

The story ends abruptly when she attends a child’s birthday party. The party involves a magic lantern show for the children, filled with ghosts and spectres. As a prank, the showman projects the image of her fiancé onto the screen and, shocked by an image which is suddenly the ‘the most corpse-like and horrible picture’ the narrator (her uncle) has ever seen, she collapses and is, in the story’s final words, pronounced ‘dead’. The transition from stereoscope to screen thus proves deadly.

It would be easy to dismiss this as simply another overblown Victorian melodrama. But there is something about the way it traverses ways of looking which hints at more. No clear explanation is given of the way the image changes from the comforting, even erotic, viewing of the stereograph to the ghastly vision of the final scene. It is presented simply as fact, as though self-evident, that this change in media is enough to kill a main character. The ending, then, only begins to make sense once we decode the viewing experiences involved – the photograph, the stereoscope, and the magic lantern.

In writing my recent article for Journal of Victorian Culture these have been my concerns. I began with the question: why does the young woman die when she looks at her lover? Implicated in this deceptively simple question is the broader and more difficult question: how is the stereoscope presented in popular fiction and what can this tell us about how people actually experienced it? And furthermore, what was it about the device that made it so ripe for literary appropriation?

An interesting addendum to those questions might be: why are some Victorian sensory technologies (the phonograph, the photograph, even Pepper’s ghost) so appealing to modern audiences as tropes of gothic and neo-Victorian storytelling, and not others? The stereoscope was a device that lent itself very easily to Victorian fiction, it was deeply involved in acts of daydreaming and fantasy (imagine the young woman gazing privately at her fiancé, for instance), yet modern audiences, otherwise conversant in a wide array of storytelling tropes and conventions both of and from the Victorian period, are largely unaware of it.

This is particularly intriguing in light of the continued popularity of looking at Victorian photographs as though at the strange spectres of an ancient past,. The pop culture tropes of looking at Victorian photography are now well ingrained in our culture. Popular internet sites present us with ‘17 Haunting Post-Mortem Photographs From The 1800s’, ‘Dead Creepy: Family Portraits with Deceased Relatives’, and, in a humorous subversion of a cliché, ‘18 Photos of Victorians Smiling’. We continue to look at the Victorian photographs, yet we’ve lost touch with that most Victorian way of looking at photographs – the stereoscope.

As a culture we are fascinated by our own continued staging of Victorian ghostliness. This fascination finds delight in the dissonance of simultaneous recognition and alienation from the past it stages. Such fascination would not, in many ways, have been all that unfamiliar to those Victorians who gazed at the world through stereoscopes, marvelling at its immediacy and tangibility, whilst sometimes unsettled by the apparent creation of visual depth from physical flatness.

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