I am sitting in a house overlooking the ocean in Solana Beach. The woman who lives here, video and computer artist Vibeke Sorensen, has just been complaining about the military helicopters that regularly fly into view beyond her picture window. They make a noise that has been measured at 80 decibels, she tells me. “Do you know how loud 80 decibels is? When there’s a pair of them, it’s 160 decibels! Why don’t they just stay over there?” She points to an unseen part of the coastline to the left of the window’s frame. The pilots aren’t on maneuvers or anything like that; these trips have something to do with trips to a “good” golf course, she says dismissively, closing the window’s wooden shutters. But it’s not to keep out more helicopter noise, should it come. She is darkening the room, because we’re going to watch a video she has made. Not an ordinary video, though. It’s in 3-D.
She hands me a pair of large wraparound tinted glasses. Darker than sunglasses, they are actually liquid crystal, with shutters that open and close at 1/120th of a second, alternating between the left eye and the right eye, so that the left eye sees only the left view and the right eye only the right. It’s a simulation of the way we see things in actuality — in stereo. And stereo, or binocular, vision is the reason we see depth. The mythological, one-eyed giant Cyclops couldn’t see three dimensions; his world looked as flat as an ordinary photograph, although he managed to do damage to his enemies anyway.
There is a cord attached to the glasses; the other end is plugged into the TV. I put the glasses on over my regular ones. The picture on the screen — an inane afternoon talk show — flickers rapidly, just perceptibly. This won’t happen when the video is playing, says Sorensen, who is still setting it up. Seven minutes long, it took her four years to make. Its title, Maya, is the Indian term for the conflict between illusion and reality. Its theme is perception. Maya also pays homage to abstraction in art and music.
“I cry every time I see it,” Sorensen says.
It used to be that 3-D wasn’t taken seriously. For many of us the term still calls to mind bad horror and sci-fi flicks of the ’50s and beyond — Creature from the Black Lagoon, They Came from Outer Space, Bwana Devil — which were shown with varying skill to audiences who wore funny-looking glasses and could count on throbbing temples and eyestrain not only from the projectionists’ focus problems but from other crudities of the early 3-D filmmaking process itself. No wonder, as a fad, it flopped. There were 3-D porno movies too. Though I never saw one myself, I well remember the marquee advertising “The Stewardesses in 3-D” at a theater around the corner from my office, circa 1973, when I worked for a magazine in downtown Washington, D.C. But 3-D films for adults only were no more successful than the ones about monsters and aliens. Patrons hated getting headaches along with their hard-ons.
Many ’50s kids (I was one) also had View-Masters, those clunky plastic binocular jobs that came with miniature 3-D photographs mounted on white cardboard wheels that revolved with the pressing of a lever. Some people may remember, too, the double-lensed Stereo Realist camera, manufactured in Milwaukee from the late 1940s until the mid-1970s. Or the stereo cameras that shortly followed the success of the Realist, marketed by Kodak and Revere. Dads who were already photography buffs used them for taking 3-D slides of the family vacation, with a very special effect.
Much earlier, starting in the 1860s, another generation used handheld stereoscopes to view 3-D stereocards. Fooling the brain into thinking it was seeing a three-dimensional image became a popular Victorian pastime. Today in antiques stores and at flea markets you can occasionally find one of these wooden contraptions, with its adjustable sliding cardholder and hooded eyepiece that is held up to the face like a masquerade disguise. The stereocards themselves, with two images mounted side by side, are more commonly found than the viewers, either singly or by the shoe box full. Literally millions were made. Recently, I found some at Old Town’s Antique Alley, the Newport Avenue Antique Center in Ocean Beach, and the Cracker Factory downtown, priced from $5 to $55 apiece, depending on the subject matter. Presidents — McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt — were among the pricey ones. Less so were “scenics” — early stereophotographers’ most popular genre. In William C. Darrah’s authoritative book, Stereo Views: A History of Stereographs in America and Their Collection (self-published in 1964), Niagara Falls was declared to be the most stereophotographed place in the world, with Yosemite “a not-too-close second.” While “flat” photographers were busy making portraits, what early stereophotographers did best was show depth, distance — geography. Architecture, too — contours of concrete and brick — was a favorite subject of study, as were churches and other public buildings, inside and out. People, if any, were small; their purpose, scale. Stereo was not the tool of choice for showing subtlety of emotion. Hence, another common stereocard category, which did show people — actors, models — and was generously labeled “humor.” Farcical, slapstick, these were 3-D staged tableaux, often bad jokes about the servants or, worse, racial and ethnic groups. Situations between the genders were typical too. To wit: a woman in a rowboat with a fishing pole has snagged her male companion in the seat of his pants. Caption: “She’s got her catch now.” Ha ha.
But the art and science of 3-D has changed — improved in almost all ways that needed improving. And with that, slowly, so has its reputation. As a result, public appreciation is growing. That seems to be especially true in California, maybe because photography in general has long been embraced by the state. So much early photographic history happened here, enacted by so many of the artful science’s most important innovators. (Motion-picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge is only the most famous.) It’s certainly true that Easterners like me, even before we make our first trip west, know its vistas from pictures — photographs — both the bad ones and the great ones that have themselves become clichés.