A new piece, still in progress, combines stereographics with stereophotography. Called Earth Consciousness, it is, she says, “a lament about the loss of nature, of nature’s serenity.” Some of the images she herself has made, others are historical, selected from the collection at UC Riverside. She shows me some of hers in a stereoscopic slide viewer. They are landscapes, local ones as well as scenes in Colorado and elsewhere in the Southwest. All have high vantage points. But there is something odd about them. The trees don’t look real. They look plastic. The mountains strike me as simulated too — like the plaster of paris relief maps I used to make as class projects in grammar school.
Then she explains. They are not your typical stereophotographs, which are made by a single camera with two lenses two and a half inches apart, which is the average distance between a pair of human eyes. Instead, she has used two separate cameras, set on tripods several feet apart. The process is called hyperstereo.
The result is what the world would look like if your eyes were similarly separated and your head were big enough to accommodate the distance. It’s a giant’s view, in other words. A two-eyed one, this time.
Geologists use aerial maps made in hyperstereo because in viewing distant objects — beyond, say, 50 to 100 meters — we lose the ability to detect depth. Things look flat. Hyperstereo’s illusion changes that. As a geologist friend of mine said, “It really lights up the geology and the vegetation.” The real strength of the imagery for him is that subtle geological features, such as large-scale bedrock fractures, can be traced for hundreds to thousands of feet when viewed this way. These features, he said, are particularly important when assessing an area for its water-source potential (i.e., the siting of a town well) or understanding “migration of subsurface contamination plumes.” (To translate this, he reminded me of A Civil Action, the recent book and movie about the lawsuit over contaminated well water and a leukemia cluster in Woburn, Massachusetts, a little south of where I live.)
Another feature of hyperstereo is the miniaturization effect that I notice. Because our brain isn’t used to seeing things so far away in three dimensions, it concludes that they are toys or toylike objects.
That’s exactly the effect Sorensen wants to create.
Because she wants to help us “understand our place in the physical world.” As she explains it, “One of the problems with our world view, and the reason why we have been destructive of the environment, is that we can’t see what we’re doing, because of our size. A lot of it has to do with the fact that we’re so small.”
And although she knows it’s another paradox, here is her ultimate hope: If the earth were to be artistically portrayed as eminently crushable, like an architect’s model — which is to say, unreal — maybe we would better understand its reality, see how fragile it truly is, see the consequences of our behavior, and we would be more careful.
“Life being as alarming as it is, I prefer the past.” — Evan S. Connell Jr., Points for a Compass Rose (1973)
In the Booth Historical Photograph Archives of the San Diego Historical Society in Balboa Park, I am being very careful with the boxes of stereocards that curator Gregory L. Williams has brought out to a desk for me. The Museum of San Diego History gift shop upstairs would have sold me (for three bucks) a pair of flat plastic stereoglasses, if I hadn’t brought my own, which you hold up to your eyes, like a lorgnette. The 3-D illusion isn’t quite as vivid as it is when you use a stereoscope, but it’s easier on the cards, whose corners get worn when they are slid in and out of a stereoscope’s cardholder.
“The first effect of looking at a good photograph through the stereoscope,” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, designer of the first inexpensive mass-marketable stereoscope, in 1861, “is a surprise such as no painting ever produced.” The Boston writer and physician, who was father of the Supreme Court justice of the same name, had been fascinated with photography in general since the 1839 invention of the daguerreotype — “the mirror with a memory.” He found the “seeming truth” of stereo to be even more amazing than flat images. As he said, “The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture” — almost as if the eyes themselves had thumbs and fingers.
Janet C. Moyer, a member of the San Diego Stereo Camera Club, calls the effect “the ‘wow’ factor. The big ‘W-O-W’ ” — she slowly spells it out — “because that’s what everybody says when they first look at one. ‘Wow!’ ”
Moyer lives east of Balboa Park. Born in Oakland (she won’t say when) and raised in Anchorage, she was the daughter of parents who were avid amateur photographers. Her brother became a professional photographer. But only over the past five years has she discovered how much she likes stereo. It happened while she was living in Massachusetts, completing a Ph.D. in Asian Studies at Boston University. “As a relief from the tension of graduate school,” she says, she started antiquing. At a twice-a-year photographica sale sponsored by the Photographic Historical Society of New England, she bought her first vintage stereo camera after eliciting a promise from the seller that he would teach her how to use it — a promise he made good. Ever since, she has been taking her own stereophotographs and buying vintage stereocards, especially in five subject areas: Alaska, China, Japan, ancient Egypt, and dogs.
Like many other stereo enthusiasts, Moyer stresses that its appeal for her is not merely its novelty. It’s something else, difficult to express. “The stereo makes the realism real,” she finally says.
I spend a full morning at the historical society, looking at three-dimensional scenes of 19th-century San Diego. The lunarlike landscapes, the acres of dust and chaparral, strike my jaundiced modern eye as desolate. Another problem is that the 3-D doesn’t much “pop,” as they say, since many of these fledgling photographers (actually, virtually every photographer was a fledgling back then) didn’t set up their shots to include a foreground, middle ground, and background. So I find more than a little relief — no pun intended — in the occasional, over-grand piece of architecture sprouting up out of the middle of a scene.