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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.

The University of California–Riverside’s California Museum of Photography, which a little over 20 years ago acquired the world’s largest collection of late-19th- and early-20th-century stereoviews and their all-important negatives, is proving to be a treasure trove for historians, as well as other people researching and re-creating the past. Filmmaker Stephen Low has been inspired by what he has discovered there. For his 1998 documentary, Mark Twain’s America in 3-D, he used the museum’s negatives, transferring them to the imax 3-D format. He wouldn’t have been able to make a movie of such clarity without them. His earlier imax 3-D production, Across the Sea of Time, features vintage stereoviews of New York, and these he also selected from the museum’s rich lode. The films are shown at multi-storied imax theaters with twin imax super 70mm projectors — the largest film frame in motion picture history. So far 23 theaters have been built around the country to accommodate them — there are currently 50 worldwide — and Irvine is lucky enough to have one at Edwards Cinemas, where other new imax 3-D films are being marketed to a new generation without memories of headaches at midnight showings of House of Wax.

More locally, the San Diego Stereo Camera Club, founded in 1952 but with a dwindling membership in recent decades, has been signing up new members. In part the fresh interest has been the result of publicity generated by the nonprofit, all-volunteer stereo enthusiasts’ National Stereoscopic Association, which held its annual three-day convention in San Diego in August 1993. With an estimated 1000-plus attendees, it was (and remains) the largest convention turnout in the 25-year history of the Columbus, Ohio–based organization.

On the individual level, Donald S. Kirson, a 42-year-old clinical psychologist who lives with his family in Scripps Ranch, bought a secondhand Realist about four years ago, reviving a boyhood fascination with stereo. He says he found the nearly 50-year-old camera easily (“in 48 hours”), through a Chicago mail-order company, after getting in touch with another mail-order house, Reel 3-D of Culver City, which sells 3-D photographic supplies. An old Clairemont High School friend, David Jon Wiener of La Jolla, was inspired by Don’s example to buy a similar camera in the same way at about the same time. Wiener had shared Kirson’s fascination with 3-D when they were kids.

Summoning images of horror films past, Wiener refers to stereophotography as “the hobby that would not die” and “the hobby in a coma.” Sometimes he even calls it “the hobby that dare not speak its name.” But Reel 3-D, for its part, says it has 37,000 names on its expanding mailing list.

And then there are artists like Vibeke Sorensen who are combining sophisticated stereographics with the latest computer technology to express their own highly personal visions.

As I watch Maya in Sorensen’s living room, I feel pleasantly — slightly but surely — mind-altered, especially as I listen to the accompanying electronic score, composed by ucsd music professor Rand Steiger, Sorensen’s husband.

The visual images are brightly colored, and they are abstract, to be sure — chevrons and paisleys and other curved shapes. But to my surprise they are strangely creaturelike too. They swim and swoop, dive and dance, separate and converge. They make patterns, and the patterns recur — although they are slightly different each time — very much like those created by choreographers. (“Thank you for noticing!” Sorensen says when I make this comment.)

And the shapes are definitely 3-D, with some in the foreground, some in the middle ground, some dashing and dodging around in the background, as mesmerizing as fish in an aquarium can be, although these are ethereal fish.

I enjoy the experience, forgetting the heavy glasses. It’s certainly not entertainment, however. What it seems to be is a representation of the process of thinking. After it’s over, I feel as if I have been looking inside my own head.

Sitting at her dining room table, her dog, Shiva, at her feet, Sorensen tells me, “When I made Maya, I avoided flat shapes, because it’s a curved-space world. Look out the window. There are almost no flat planes in nature.” And yet, paradoxically, she says to the imaginary critic who complains about the lack of “trees and people and houses” in her work, a representation of reality wasn’t her aim. Anyway, she reminds me, there are plenty of abstract shapes in so-called reality. Rub your eyes, she suggests. “Doesn’t it produce great colors? Sometimes I do it and I think, ‘If only I could get that on video.’ When I close my eyes at night I don’t see trees and people and houses. What I see is more like what’s in Maya.”

Above all, she says, what she wanted to do in Maya was to “explore our understanding of the continuum between our interior and exterior worlds.” And for that she needed 3-D.

The work wasn’t merely a labor of love. Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Sorensen worked on it collaboratively, with X-ray crystallographer Lynn Teneyck and computer scientist Phil Mercurio. Their assignment: to design, build, and test the Interactive Stereoscopic Animation System at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. “The scientists wanted to transfer paradigms for interacting with space,” says Sorensen, “and information about stereography from the artistic community” — i.e., herself. As Sorensen explains it, although chemists have long used 3-D imaging (“They think in 3-D, because they visualize molecules”), other kinds of scientists are only just learning to use 3-D for communicating the spatial models of their abstract ideas. Maya was created to “specify and test the parameters” of the Supercomputer Center’s stereoscopic system, to show them how to make animation, and in some cases, to show them that it is possible at all.

Sorensen is now a senior fellow at the Supercomputer Center, as well as professor and chair of the Division of Animation and Digital Arts in the School of Cinema-Television at usc. The 45-year-old Danish citizen who is a permanent resident of the United States received her own degrees at the Royal Academy of Art and Architecture in Copenhagen and at the Center for Media Study at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In the world beyond academia she has been successful too. Her work has been exhibited in museums here and abroad, broadcast on TV, and featured on the Web. (In 1996, she made a ten-second stereoscopic animated film for Absolut Vodka; it can be seen at www.absolutvodka.com.)

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.

But why?

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.

There is, for example, the regal old courthouse, which looks substantial but awfully lonely, standing there all by itself, no people in sight, and even its hitching posts empty of horses. The proud Bank of San Diego does have a horse and buggy out front, along with a couple of tiny, derby-hatted men, but otherwise it, too, casts a long, lonely shadow. Better is the shot of the clapboard fire station. In front of it are horse-drawn wagons and men — probably the firefighters — sitting in the wagons’ high seats, patiently posing for the camera. I look at this card for a long time, my eye finding more and more details. Next door to the firehouse is a building bearing a painted sign below the second-story eaves that says the Algeria. I take it to be an early hotel, and I imagine the rumpled beds in the bedrooms. The street numbers on the storefronts below it say 938 and 940. My eye continues to roam. (In a stereophotograph everything is in focus, nothing is blurry. You can look at all the different layers at your leisure.) When I come to the flowers in the hotel’s window boxes, the scene springs uncannily to life. For it’s then that I start to imagine the person who has leaned out to water them. I even hear the sound — the overflow from the watering can hitting the dusty street below. It’s so vivid — so real — I find it difficult to stop looking longer. I literally have to make myself stop. There are four more boxes of stereocards for me to go through.

Enthralling, too, is a scene of a family picnic in La Jolla — circa 1874, says the script penned on the back of the card. Sitting on blankets, their buggies in the background, these bonneted women and children — and one man — are looking rather overdressed for their day at the beach. It must be a Sunday, their only day of rest. Are the extra women unmarried or are they widows? I covet their hand-woven picnic basket in the foreground. It would bring good money at an antique auction today. For them it was just their food hamper, filled with things the women had cooked that morning or the night before, or canned in a previous season. In my mind’s eye I see their kitchens, pantries, the canning jars, things boiling on the stove, the steam rising up, moistening their faces.…

Another favorite of mine is a rare studio portrait of six Native Americans, posed indoors against a formal painted backdrop. With feathers on their heads and pigment traced down their cheeks and daubed on their bare chests, they look out at me dispassionately, bored with this ordeal, and I look back at them in wonder, seeing exactly what the stereophotographer saw: “Tejate Indians dressed for feast dance (1873–76),” reads the scrolly caption he has inked on the back.

Parker & Parker of San Diego took those stereoviews, duplicated them, mounted them on colored cardboard, and sold them like postcards (their successors). There are about 100 other different cards in this collection, including ones of Alonzo Horton’s house and garden, the lighthouse on Point Loma, the City Brewery, and the old jail. And there were probably hundreds more made. Joseph C. and Francis A. Parker were brothers who operated a gallery at various addresses downtown from 1873 to 1892. (They took flat photos too. “Bring on the babies as we can catch their picture quicker than lights,” reads one of their newspaper advertisements.) But according to Joleeta and Tex Treadwell of Bryan, Texas, whose Institute of Photographic Research prepared a catalog of Parker stereoviews, the two men reportedly didn’t get along too well, and in 1879 one brother bought out the other’s interest. In 1884 Joseph C. moved the gallery from Sixth Street near F to 740 Fifth Street and brought his son Wallace Brown Parker into the business, which became Parker & Son. “For unknown reasons this only lasted a year or so,” the Treadwells write, “and the business reverted to the elder Parker alone.” That explains the differing credit lines rubber-stamped or printed on the cards I look at. The Treadwells do not, however, mention another apparent family member, whose name is on the shot of the courthouse, as well as on other stereos in the historical society’s possession: Lucile E. Parker.

Larry Booth, in his writings on early San Diego’s photographers, doesn’t mention Lucile E. either. What the former curator of the Union Title & Trust Insurance Company’s photography collection (which became the nucleus of the historical society’s, in 1979) did write was this bit of praise for the Parkers in general: “[The family’s] little stereograph views, 2H"x 2H" square, seem insignificant at first glance, but they provide our best evidence of what San Diego was then like.

“Stereographs of San Diego in the 1870s,” continues the man for whom the collection was named (along with his wife, Jane), “were of interest to local people and they were also bought by large companies for distribution all over the country. The people in Chicago or Pittsburgh had a chance to see, with real meaning, what San Diego and the Pacific Coast was like. San Diegans and visitors sent the ‘View’ card to family and friends in other states and thus influenced many people to come to San Diego.”

In addition to the landscapes, the buildings, and the rest, giant fruits and vegetables were another favorite of California boosters. Come to the paradise of monster melons, was the message. I have seen one giant vegetable stereophotograph taken by a Parker (the label didn’t say which Parker). It is not in the historical society’s collection; I saw it in a book edited by Edward W. Earle, Points of View: The Stereograph in America, a Cultural History (1979).

It is a 30-pound sweet potato sitting on a pedestal.

Some 300 other fascinating San Diego stereophotographs in the archives were taken by an amateur — a hobbyist named W. Beuthel — between 1925 and 1937; and these, too, are a unique record — literally one of a kind, as far as anyone knows. And curator Greg Williams has given me a pair of little white archival gloves to wear while I handle them.

Thanks to Beuthel, I see three-dimensional tennis players in old-fashioned whites on the courts of the Hotel Del; Jane Olson, Miss Ocean Beach (no date on it, unfortunately); and two tanned and oiled older men obligingly posing for Beuthel in their bathing suits at Mission Beach. There are also lots of Navy ships, sailing ships, and a tuna fleet. A circus parade. Broadway. The California Pacific International Exposition of 1935–36. The zoo. Some parachutists alighting, and some trampolinists in midair.

Beuthel wasn’t an artist, but he was technically adept. He was also ambitious. For example, some of these are hand-tinted — never an easy task in stereo, since everything you do to one of the double photographs, you have to do to the other in exactly the same way, or the stereo effect will be spoiled. (It’s the reason why stereos of nudes are prized, I’m told: since airbrushing or touching up is nearly impossible, the models’ bodies have to be close to perfect to begin with.)

But Beuthel, beyond his name and his stereophotography, is a mystery. The collection was bought about ten years ago at a house sale in Klamath Falls, Oregon, by William Colvin, of Fox Island, Washington. A camera collector who has a vacation house on Klamath Lake, Colvin says he bought them from Beuthel’s daughter, after seeing her classified ad for the sale in a newspaper. “She and her sister were selling the stereoviews and a lot of other photographic equipment way too cheap,” he told me over the phone. “It was a shame. This guy was a real [stereo]enthusiast, and considering the age of [the photographs], he must have been taking them with a box camera,” he marveled, to think of the primitive instrument that usually had a fixed focus and a single shutter speed.

A while later, Colvin, who belongs to the National Stereoscopic Association, saw another classified ad, in the organization’s bimonthly publication, Stereo World. Someone was looking for stereoviews of San Diego: Dave Wiener of La Jolla. But when Wiener saw the Beuthel collection, he knew he shouldn’t keep it for himself and suggested to Colvin that he donate it to the historical society. Which Colvin did, in 1993. He also gave 100 or so Beuthel stereoviews of an early Fresno Grape Festival to the Fresno Chamber of Commerce.

I leave the historical society that day hungry for more history. Stereo enthusiasts like to say that looking at old stereoviews is the closest thing we have to time travel. Dave Wiener told me that the illusion of breaking out of one’s own temporality is stereo’s main appeal for him. He was captivated by H.G. Wells’s Time Machine as a kid. “It’s the idea of not being trapped on a one-way street,” he said. “Looking at 3-D pictures seems a way of circumventing that.”

I agreed with him that it is distinctly different from looking at flat photographs or watching a documentary — two media that tend to direct your attention much more authoritatively than stereocards do. The freedom to look where you want to look, just as in reality, is what I find most exhilarating. I don’t know if any experiments have been done, or what results they would yield, but it seems to me that looking at 3-D images for an extended period of time does something subtle to one’s brain, as surely as do certain drugs, or even exercise. I could be led to believe that it’s beneficial.

So I drive with anticipation up to UC Riverside’s museum, which is in a seismically retrofitted, renovated Kress (old dime store) building downtown and where access to print files in the immense basement archives is available by appointment. Intern Don Parker is waiting for me, with a pair of better-quality plastic stereoglasses than the ones I have brought along and boxes of stereocards in the subject areas I requested, including “San Diego,” laid out on a long table. Nearby me are magnificent vintage cameras made of rich wood and shiny brass that remind me of a quote I once read in an essay by Roland Barthes, the French social and literary critic. “For me the noise of Time is not sad,” he wrote in his posthumous volume, Camera Lucida (1981). “I love bells, clocks, watches — and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood.”

In the San Diego box I find wonderful, if predictable, views of La Jolla (a natural arch), Ocean Beach (shore caves), the public library (dated 1915), a submarine and its supply ship, and, of course, the Hotel Del. More imaginative is one whose caption reads in old manual typewriting: “On the Mountain Springs Grade between El Centro and San Diego, Calif.” It shows a treacherous road, a Model T rounding the curve, and a sign written on the rocks: Prepare To Meet God. Philip Brigandi is the photographer’s name; it’s written in script on the print’s verso. The date is stamped: 1925. That was the year Brigandi went to work full-time for the stereoview publisher the Keystone Company, having been a Keystone freelancer for the previous decade. Born in 1873 in Messina, Sicily, Brigandi was said to have been a fencing master in the Italian army who immigrated to the United States when he was 21 and who then taught fencing at Cornell University, until he took up photography in 1903. In the box labeled “Prominent People” I find a couple of stereoportraits of this handsome man, dated the same year as his mountain-road picture. In a full-length shot he is posed in front of a backdrop. In hand he has one of his beautiful “clocks for seeing” — a stereo camera in its carrying case. In the other picture, he is sitting at a desk, the camera open, its double lenses showing. In both pictures he has the perfect posture, direct gaze, and trim physique you would expect of a fencing master.

Ironically, Brigandi was hired by Keystone to cull its mammoth files, which had grown to more than two million negatives, many dating back to 1860. Keystone itself wasn’t founded until 1892, by amateur photographer B.L. Singley, of Meadville, Pennsylvania, but soon enough, he was buying up companies and their negatives on his way to making Keystone not only the largest stereoview publisher in the world by 1920 but virtually the only one. In a 1991 video about Keystone, produced jointly by UC Riverside’s museum and Sandpail Productions of Studio City, a fictional Brigandi complains, “I thought I was hired to take pictures, not destroy them!” But as Stereo World magazine editor John Dennis notes in his review of the video, at least Brigandi knew better than most which images to save, and his choices, years later, have become the core of the Keystone-Mast collection of over 200,000 negatives and nearly 100,000 prints. These include scenes of the Spanish-American War, the Boxer Rebellion in China and the Russo-Japanese War, the campaign tours of McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, construction of the Panama Canal, the Klondike gold rush, the World Exposition in Paris, and San Diego’s own Panama-California Exposition in 1915.

The stereocard phenomenon is often compared to television. The cards were a source of news and entertainment — the world’s first mass medium — after Holmes invented his inexpensive stereoscope and purposely did not take out a patent, so others could freely copy its design. A Holmes stereoscope and a set of cards had a place in every home, just as a TV set does today, I’ve heard many stereo buffs say with pride and with puzzlement that something once so ubiquitous could now be so little known. You don’t even have to go to an antique store to see the immense variety and scope of cards that were made in the heyday. Take a look at the on-line auction eBay (www.ebay.com). Search “stereoview” or “stereoviews.” I just had a look this moment and saw about 1200 for sale, including one of a street in Pasadena being sold by someone in Quebec City. The bidding was up to $14.49, with 31 minutes to go. I also saw the mission at San Gabriel in the 1900s (bidding at $6.05) and the one in Santa Barbara ($8.50). I saw a soldier’s home in Michigan ($5) and a family portrait in Wisconsin ($28). And a mixed lot of 17 humor cards ($20) — the 19th-century equivalent of situation comedies.

And yet I do not find the TV analogy entirely apt. For one thing, rather than dulling your visual senses, stereo seems to sharpen them. For another, while there may have been stereocards in most middle- and upper-class households, the poor didn’t have the leisure or the money for them. (Today even the poor have television.)

If, however, families didn’t own them, their children still would have had a good chance of seeing them — and of having their attitudes and visual imagination shaped by them — since Keystone is best known for selling to schools and libraries sets of stereocards, like encyclopedias, in booklike slipcases. In the 1880s, another company, Underwood & Underwood, had ushered in the era of boxed sets. Keystone, after buying the Underwood brothers’ business and merging it into its own, merely perfected the marketing technique. In 1898, it initiated the so-called Keystone Educational Department and signed up noted authors (poet Carl Sandburg was one) to endorse it. By 1922, Keystone claimed that every school district in a city with a population of over 50,000 had adopted the Keystone System. It also claimed that the cards could transport you. The company was not speaking metaphorically. More than a dozen college professors signed the following statement on behalf of the 400-card Keystone Tour of the World: “If a stereoscopic photograph of a place is used with certain accessories (as special maps which show one’s location, direction and field of vision, etc.) it is possible for a person to lose all consciousness of his immediate bodily surroundings and to gain, for a short time at least, a distinct state of consciousness or experience of location in the place represented. Taking into account certain obvious limitations, such as lack of color and motion, we can say that the experience a person can get in this way is such as he would get if he were carried unconsciously to the place in question and permitted to look at it. In other words, while this state of consciousness lasts it can be truly said that the person is in the place seen.” Out-of-body experience, anyone?

Not known as an innovator, Keystone used another marketing idea of the Underwood brothers. Elmer and Ben, of Ottawa, Kansas, had trained young men to sell their stereoviews door-to-door. Often college students, as many as 3000 per summer season, they traveled by bike or horse-and-buggy, using stereoviews to pay for lodging at the end of the day. Chosen for their good appearance, good manners, and “sober habits,” they were encouraged to attend church services, read in the public library, and, unlike Flannery O’Connor’s Bible salesman, avoid any suggestions of impropriety with the daughter of anybody, farmer or otherwise. Keystone continued this tradition, sending thousands of canvassers across the country. But if at first young men on a break from their studies were its canvassers, the job later evolved into one for genuine year-round salesmen, the kind with a smile and a shoeshine — and a limited future. At the museum in Riverside, I read a fascinating document, written in 1941 by one L.L. Cupp, the president of the New England branch of Keystone, who committed to paper his sales pitches and techniques in a 36-page confidential memo to his sales force. Here is some of the sales patter he suggests:

“[Showing customer a stereoview of an Italian scene] ‘Let us go up on the roof of the famous Milan Cathedral in Italy which has taken over 500 years to build and it’s not finished yet. It has some 2300 finely carved statues on those spires, all of famous men who lived in the past centuries. Isn’t that just as tho [sic] you were standing there on the roof? Mrs. MacDuffie, who was over there a few years ago, said she didn’t see it any clearer when she stood on the roof there. You do see it that clear, don’t you?’ ”

And for handling a common objection to a phone request to make a sales call, here is his approach:

“A very common reply these days is: ‘Well, Mr. Caldwell, I don’t think I am going to let you come out and show this to me, because it would just be a waste of your time, as I’m not buying a thing.’ I reply (with an audible chuckle): ‘You don’t know anybody that is, do you? If you do, I wish you’d give me their name and address.’ That usually flags her down and I sometimes reply, ‘Well, of course the tragedy of the country’s condition is that you are not alone in your hesitance in buying; in fact, most of the people I talk to feel as you do. So I’ve faced the situation philosophically and said to myself, “Either you must show your merchandise to people that are not in the market now or else you’ll have to take a job on the wpa,” and of course I don’t want you taxed to support me so I’ve decided the only thing for me to do is to continue our business in the usual way and show this to the type of people who are the ones who buy it in normal times; then you’ll know what it’s like; you will know it fits your own particular needs, and so with that understanding, why don’t you let me come by and give you a glimpse of it?’ ”

As smooth as Cupp and his sales force were (or weren’t), it didn’t matter in the end: stereoviews were going the way of Willy Loman. Keystone stopped production at about the time that Cupp’s memo was written and stopped selling altogether in 1963, when the company was sold. The buyer was the Mast Development Company, a manufacturer of stereoscopic viewing devices for optometrists. What followed for Keystone was a complicated series of mergers and acquisitions. Suffice it to say that, luckily for us, Mast family members warehoused the enormous collection of prints and glass- and film-negatives and finally donated it intact to UC Riverside in 1977. It was made available to the public two years later.

Currently, the museum is constructing a vast digital catalog called Stereographs of the Americas. The project, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, concentrates on Keystone’s 17,200 “geographic” stereoviews of North America, Central America, South America, the Caribbean, and early-20th-century protectorates of the United States in the South Pacific. UC Riverside expects all of its 100,000 worldwide stereoscopic images to be on-line in the future.


“If only I had thought of a Kodak!” — H.G. Wells’s Time Traveler in The Time Machine (1895)

The opposite of hyperstereo is something called macrostereo (or, less commonly, hypostereo). It uses double lenses that are much closer together than human eye-to-eye distance. So instead of seeing things as a giant would, you see things as if you were a mouse.

At the monthly meeting of the San Diego Stereo Camera Club — held in the Photo Arts Building in Balboa Park, January through October, every fourth Wednesday — I meet a very unmouselike man who takes exquisite macrostereo slides of flowers and insects. He is Norm Henkels, the club’s program chairman, and he has brought along some color photocopies of recent slides of furry bees nuzzling deep inside whorls of flower petals. Before the business part of the meeting, he and another club member — Leon C. Hoffman, a retired San Diego sheriff’s department sergeant and Grossmont College professor emeritus — are free-viewing them.

You’ll hear the term free-viewing frequently if you talk to 3-D enthusiasts. What it means is seeing stereoscopic images without the use of a device such as a stereoscope. Sir Charles Wheatstone, the British discoverer of stereoscopics in 1832 and the maker of the first stereoscope (he coined the term), could free-view easily. It was he who first demonstrated that the mind perceives an object in three dimensions because each eye receives a slightly different image. It was his accidental free-viewing that had started him experimenting in the first place.

I’ve heard conflicting reports on free-viewing’s degree of difficulty. Dave Wiener told me that he has never been able to do it, although he has often tried. Vibeke Sorensen told me she firmly believes that everyone can free-view with only a little practice. “I taught stereographics for ten years. Believe me. Everyone can do it. Unless there’s a real physiological problem. Many of the people who say they can’t could learn. My students all learn. Week after week, there’s somebody else who exclaims Ahhh! when they finally do it.” Sorensen explained it to me as the act of “decoupling convergence and accommodation,” with convergence being, according to my sourcebooks, “the coordinated turning of the eyes inward to focus on an object at close range” and accommodation, “the automatic adjustment in the focal length of the lens of the eye to permit retinal focusing on objects at varying distances.” Typically, Sorensen said, “The focal point is the convergence point. But with free-viewing it isn’t. And how quickly you learn [to free-view] depends on the flexibility of the eye muscles. And every doctor I have spoken with says it is good for you,” she added. “It actually strengthens the eye muscles. There are exercise charts that I give my students.”

The gregarious Henkels, by contrast, dispenses with all explanations. I haven’t known him for more than two minutes when he is shouting at me, albeit good-naturedly: “Put your index fingers together! Arms at arm’s length! Now look beyond them! See the little hot dog? The hot dog! See it?”

Try it yourself. Begin by looking into the distance. Now stretch your arms out in front of you, put your index fingers together, and continue to look past them, into infinity. What you should see is your own two fingers, as well as a third image in between them. And yes, it will look very much like a Vienna sausage link. Now move your fingers slightly (about G") apart. The little sausage will shrink to the size of a marble — a flesh-colored marble — and will appear to float.

The next step is to learn to “decouple” your eyes in the same way while looking at a pair of stereoscopic images. The result should be a third image, in between the other two. If you ignore the two flat ones and look at the one in the middle, it should have three dimensions.

I’m still waiting to be able to do this — to be able to say Ahhh! If I ever do succeed, it will come in handy when I’m at antique shops and wondering whether to buy an old stereocard. Sometimes publishers goofed, reversing the right and left photos during the mounting process. Or they cunningly mounted two identical photos. In neither case is three-dimensional viewing possible. And unless I can free-view them, I won’t know that until I get home and put them into my old Holmes scope or look at them through my little flat plastic stereo glasses, which I don’t always have with me.

At the San Diego Stereo Camera Club, there is less talk of historical views than of contemporary ones taken by the club’s own members. There are 25 of them here, including guests. (The club’s paid membership is 28, says president Chuck Hirsch; it may not sound like a lot for a city of San Diego’s size, but consider that just a few years ago, 5 to 7 people was the usual turnout.) It is a congenial group, assembled to chat and have refreshments and to see some of Henkels’s slides projected on a screen.

Henkels is a newcomer — to the club, not to stereo. Former president of the Chicago Stereo Camera Club, he moved from Glenview, Illinois, to San Diego in 1997, after retiring from the contracting business. But stereophotography is much more to him than a hobby. For the past few years he has done consulting work in the 3-D imaging field, particularly for medical applications. At the International Peritoneal Dialysis Conference held in Dallas in 1990, he gave a polarized stereoscopic presentation and delivered a paper titled “The Use of Stereophotography for Investigating Peritoneal Topography.” It was produced by the Baxter Healthcare Corporation of Round Lake, Illinois. In 1991, in Maywood, Illinois, he was a consultant in the neurosurgical operating room at Loyola University Medical Center, Division of Neurosurgery, responsible for “sequentially documenting in macrostereo the craniorbital zygomatic approach procedure for instructional purposes.” (Translation: he helped a surgeon teach brain surgery by stereophotographing the procedure.)

“The medical field has been using stereophotography in medical applications for 50 years,” Henkels tells me. “Look at the textbooks. Medical texts have consistently and historically used stereoscopic illustrations for showing things like dna chains. And there are more and more of these illustrations every year.” Still, there is much to be learned. When he made his presentation to the doctors in Dallas, he says they were amazed, “literally dancing in the aisles when they saw what they wanted — and needed — to know.”

Born in Dubuque, Iowa, in 1930, Henkels says his interest in stereophotography dates from 1951 when he was trained as a photographer at the U.S. Navy School of Photography in Pensacola, Florida, and used stereophotography for aerial mapping. After graduating third in his 99-member class, he chose to work at the photo lab at the Naval Air Test Center in Patuxent River, Maryland. He says now, “I should have stayed in the Navy!” He has, however, no regrets about failing to pursue a career in photography. “It’s like being a girl in Hollywood. Maybe if you sleep around, you’ll get somewhere. Otherwise, you’re a dime a dozen.” With a family to raise, he needed a secure income.

Still, he’s done pretty well for himself in the photography world, having been inducted into the Photographic Society of America’s Hall of Fame and named a Fellow of the Third Dimension Society of Great Britain. He has also won or placed in a number of competitions. One of them netted him $1500. That was for grand prize in a contest sponsored by the Toro Company, Irrigation Division, headquartered in Riverside, as it happens. Entries were judged on “composition, creativity, and overall portrayal of ‘Excellence in Irrigation’ ” — i.e., photos had to have action shots of Toro sprinkler equipment in operation. Grinning like a kid, Henkels says his photo — of a residential installation — was the only 3-D photo in the competition. “And when the judges saw it, it just blew ’em away.”

Polarized glasses are passed around; the club owns a box full. But some members have brought their own glasses — higher quality and also less geeky — or else clip-ons.

We take seats in the folding chairs. The screen looks ordinary, but it is silvered, so it doesn’t diffuse the polarized light coming from the filters mounted on the projector lenses. Nonetheless, when the first of Henkels’s slides appears on the screen, it’s blurry.

“Be patient” comes a steady voice behind me — it’s Leon Hoffman’s wife, Shirley, who, like her husband, is a longtime club member.

The club rightly has great confidence in its volunteer projectionist for the evening, Gary Schacker. In fact, quips Schacker, a 47-year-old professional portrait photographer, “I’ve been appointed ‘projectionist for life.’ ” It’s not an easy job — and he’s good at it: he’s been doing it for the club for the past ten years.

Schacker explains the challenge this way: “You need three hands.”

There! I see in full focus, full color, and full 3-D a magnificent bird of paradise — the plant, not the bird itself — with the “bird” poking its head out of the so-called stereo window, seemingly close enough to touch with my nose. It’s a very odd sensation. I feel my brain is being teased, almost tickled.

A resident of the zoo is next — a giraffe, its neck poking through the “window” — and it’s difficult not to rear back.

Then a huge ruffled white rose in macrostereo, and the group murmurs its approval.

A showy purple passionflower elicits more ooooohs.

A cactus — perfect subject for stereo: its spines stand out.

Butterflies. More pleasure sounds from the group.

And here are the same bees feeding in flowers that I saw on the photocopies, except now the illusion of depth draws me into the bee’s experience. It’s a much more powerful photograph than it appeared to be when I saw it flat. The difference reminds me of a comment I heard Schacker make: “Some shots only make sense in stereo. For example, a rain forest. There are, of course, many beautiful pictures of rain forests in 2-D, but certain types of very complex and busy subjects that look like a confusing jumble in flat photography would make perfect sense in 3-D.”

Finally, something that looks like a portrait of a giant insect appears on the screen. No, it’s somebody having his eyes tested at the optometrist’s office, saying, “Better, worse, better, worse.”

No, it’s the optometrist himself: Henkels’s.

“Payback time,” says Henkels.

Gary Schacker’s own award-winning slides are up next: landscapes, cityscapes, night photography, travel photography. Anything but people. (“I photograph people all day for a living.”)

The skyline of San Diego from Harbor Drive near the airport.

The Crown Room at the Hotel Del.

The California Tower in Balboa Park.

Not only 3-D, they are positively saturated with color. Just shimmering. In Schacker’s capable hands, stereo really is, as he calls it, “the most immersive form of photography ever invented.”

He shows next some views of my part of the world — New England — in the fall. Changing leaves, pumpkins, old houses. The usual suspects. But in 3-D it all looks new to me.

Then, in hyperstereo, Niagara Falls, with tourists.

“Look at the Lilliputians,” someone says.

Finally, there is Times Square in Manhattan, with Schacker standing on a concrete planter in the middle of traffic. A night shot. He calls it “Geek of the East.”

True, he was born in Kew Gardens, Queens, Borough of New York, in 1952. As for geek, well, I don’t know. Let’s say he has always enjoyed photography. He bought his first Brownie Fiesta camera with Green Stamps in the early ’60s. In 1964, after the family moved to Bayside, Queens, he was able to ride his bike to the New York World’s Fair, taking his Brownie with him. Shortly after that, he says, “a friend’s father passed away and we were looking through his things and found a Rolleiflex still in its original box. And he and I together went through the instructional manual, learning how to use it.”

Making pictures in stereo was still years away. “I loved my View-Master collection as a kid. But I didn’t have any idea that you could do it yourself.”

In college at the State University of New York at Buffalo he studied sociology, then went to law school there, but he’s never practiced law, explaining that he had no passion for it. Instead, he started working as a stereo consultant — audio stereo: speakers and subwoofers — while photography continued to be a hobby. In 1980, he bought a stereo adapter for his Pentax, and his love of 3-D began.

By then he was already in San Diego, having moved here at the suggestion of friends. He did some more audio consulting, then took a job as a studio photographer for May & Co. and was “trained intensively to do portraits.” For the past 15 years he has been in business for himself as Schacker Photography, doing weddings, bar mitzvahs, and some commercial work — in standard flat format. And while he has done one 3-D wedding and offers it as an option, his professional work is usually separate from what is for him “an intense hobby.”

At Schacker’s house in Del Cerro, earlier on the day of the meeting, he showed me his large collection of 3-D cameras and other equipment. He is a great fan of the Realist and its former manufacturer, the David White Company, which is still making surveying instruments today. He gets his vintage cameras at places like the monthly flea market in Buena Park. Today new ones are also being made, he said, and mentioned a Russian model. Which proves that the Russians are still stuck in the ’50s, I pointed out.

But an actual stereo camera is not required to take 3-D pix, Schacker explained. “You can take any pair of 35mm cameras and if you can figure out a way to fire them simultaneously,” you can do it. Some people are marketing this sort of thing. He showed me one that is plugged into its twin and is fired together with the push of a button. “By pairing up two modern cameras instead of using a vintage one you have all the advantages of modern optics, like being able to change lenses and attach filters.”

In fact, he said, “You don’t even need two cameras. Many people simply take one picture, then shift the camera a couple of inches to take the second view. With a little care this can yield good results on nonmoving subjects.”

Schacker also has a big collection of View-Master items, including recent offerings from the company, like a Barbie tie-in, still in its original, unopened box. “At one time,” he told me, “View-Master would not allow its products to be sold in toy departments. They were supposed to be serious, not toys — as serious as stereocards once were. Educational. Now View-Master has been bought by Mattel, and you can find them in Toys R Us. Mattel is doing well with View-Master, but it is nowhere near what it was in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s.” During that era, he said, View-Master employed its own full-time photographers to take the travel subjects, as well as the studio shots, like its children’s fairy tale series (“which was beautifully done”). View-Master’s in-house work today tends to concentrate on things like tie-ins. Meanwhile, it has begun to use independent photographers to find and photograph places and attractions. And Schacker is one of them. For 11 days not long ago, he shot View-Master reels for the Inland Empire Tourism Council — to promote an area that includes Riverside, San Bernardino, Temecula, Ontario, Lake Elsinore, and mountain resorts east of L.A. — “for distribution to interested parties.”

When I asked Schacker why he thought stereophotography had essentially died after the ’50s, necessitating its eventual, current rebirth, he blamed it on television. “People gave up all sorts of hobbies, not just stereo, when TV came along.”

By the same token, he believes that 3-D movies were a response to the competition from the new medium. Like so many others, however, he regrets their poor quality and cheap tricks and wishes the technology had been used instead to “enhance reality.” One early 3-D film he does love is Hitchcock’s 3-D version of Dial M for Murder. “After a while you forget that it’s 3-D,” he said, and that struck me as the proper goal for a 3-D filmmaker.

Not surprisingly, Schacker is a great fan of the new imax 3-D films. He has seen them all, “and most, more than once.” Three times he has seen Across the Sea of Time, relishing the scenes of old New York that alternate with contemporary images, including a spectacular aerial tour of the city.

“Every time I see it, it brings tears to my eyes,” he said without embarrassment.

Before the meeting ends and the refreshments begin, we see a documentary about President Eisenhower. Most people know that he spent a lot of time golfing; one of his other hobbies was stereophotography. There in 3-D are stereoslides of Mamie and Camp David and the Eisenhower grandchildren and Ike’s class reunion at West Point (he was Class of 1915) — “Ike’s 3-D Gallery.”

But shortly into it, I am feeling the headache, and I remember something Schacker told me earlier in the day about Ike. “The guy was a feeb. He couldn’t take a 3-D picture.”

Nonetheless, he was, along with Harold Lloyd and Ray Walston, one of stereophotography’s few celebrity practitioners, and the National Stereoscopic Association embraces him. In 1990 (Eisenhower’s centennial) the organization dedicated its convention to him.


“There has always been a type of person who will have a hobby.” — Gary Schacker

I spoke only briefly to San Diego Stereo Camera Club member Owen “Wes” Western that evening, but it was long enough to learn that he makes his own 3-D movies and to get invited over to his house to see one on Saturday night.

On Saturday afternoon, I drive to Irvine to see the recent imax 3-D release T-Rex, a 3-D dinosaur flick. But misjudging the time it will take to get there and also failing to plan for the Great Plains–size parking lot I will have to cross on my way to the box office, I arrive a few minutes after it has started — which turns out to be a few minutes too late to be admitted, since the ushers have to distribute the special glasses and give the audience instructions before the show starts. I drive back to San Diego, kicking myself the whole way.

At seven, I drive to Western’s nicely situated house, high on a hill in San Marcos, still moping about my missed opportunity. But no one mopes for long around Western. He’s a whirlwind, a hard-core hobbyist with an intensity that overwhelms. I don’t have my coat off before he is showing me the closet where he keeps his collection of vintage movie projectors of all kinds. “Wes has things the Smithsonian doesn’t have,” his wife, Erin, tells me. Since he must get up at 4:00 in the morning for his job as an audio technician for kusi-tv morning news, he should go to bed early, but he doesn’t like to sleep. Long and lean, he is stretched in more ways than one. As “Wes Owen,” he used to be a deejay for kbest (kbzt-fm). The voice is smooth, and persistent.

He shows me a little room built into a corner of his garage. His brother-in-law constructs these vaults, he says, to be used for wine cellars; instead, he uses his for his vintage film collection, again of all kinds, mostly 2-D. There are canisters and canisters of them squeezed onto the shelves. He leads me into the family room — he and Erin have two young sons. At the far end is a pull-down movie screen permanently affixed — his family’s own home theater.

A native San Diegan, the 54-year-old Western was, early on, fascinated by 3-D comics. “If they can do it, I should be able to do it too,” he reasoned as a kid. “That’s when the [3-D] drawing started.”

When he was 8, his parents took him to see The Three Stooges in 3-D. He remembers, too, a Warner Brothers 3-D cartoon, Lumberjack Rabbit. As a 15-year-old at Crawford High School, he took his first stereophotographs, using two Brownie cameras; a year later, he constructed his first adapter. “As they say in the circus, it’s all done with mirrors.”

A member of the San Diego Stereo Camera Club since 1982, he is also in the Stereo Club of Southern California, whose 200-plus members meet every three months in L.A. “I work in TV, but I like all these things you can’t do in TV,” he tells me, then adds, emphatically, “but 3-D is not a gimmick. It’s the way we naturally see things. It’s the world of flat TV, films, and pictures, which we’ve come to accept as normal, that is actually the gimmick! As far as I’m concerned it’s an art form all unto itself.”

If you see a car with vanity plate 3DFLICKS, that’s Western’s. A promoter of stereo in general, he is credited with making the National Stereoscopic Association convention in 1993 the success it was, because he worked his San Diego media contacts so relentlessly.

His latest 3-D film footage was taken of a B-36 aircraft. When I tell him I don’t know what a B-36 is, he pops a video into the vcr. It’s Strategic Air Command from 1955, starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson. He fast-forwards to a scene where the huge plane shakes the windows as it roars overhead, while Stewart and Allyson quakingly embrace. Then he shows me, in another scene, the thing itself in takeoff. As the noise of the soundtrack fills the room, Western looks serene, and he is silent. He may talk and talk, but he apparently makes his most important statements with images, moving images, his own or those of others.

As it turns out, he has a personal reason to love this plane. His father was an aircraft mechanic for General Dynamics/Convair, the B-36’s maker. “He did a lot of fine-tuning on them,” he tells me. Part of the Cold War weaponry (and mentality), they were later scrapped, without ever having been used in combat. But one has been reconstructed and is on display at the Castle Air Museum in Central California. Last year, he took his family up there and made stereo pix, stereo video, and “flatties,” too, as he refers to 2-D photographs.

“It was like an out-of-body experience for him,” says Erin. “It was like a religious experience.”

“The leviathan of the skies,” muses Western, “just sitting out in this big grassy field all by itself. I had never before had a chance to get close to one.”

Even though his father had worked on them?

He shrugs, “That’s just how it happened.”

Considering his urge to document this nearly extinct metal creature, I don’t think his pilgrimage was entirely coincidental to the fact that last year, too, his father died.

But Western is not a self-reflective guy, and I don’t mention my hunch. Nor do I ever get to see his B-36 pictures, for he is soon enough off in another direction, after he has set up another, smaller, screen (silvered, like the one owned by the local club) in front of the permanent one. He and I and Erin and one of the sons put on our polarized glasses to see a stereoslide, in hyperstereo, that Western took from the observation deck of the Seattle Space Needle. “With the viewpoints 40 feet apart, these are like pictures taken by a 1200-foot-tall giant,” he says.

Another, taken from an eastbound plane on its way to Las Cruces, New Mexico, was the result of two separate slides taken four seconds apart, with vantage points that differed by half a mile. The giant with the camera, this time, was seven miles tall.

Next is a regular stereo slide, except that this one is a time-exposure. In a dark room, standing in front of the tripod, he wrote his wife’s name with a cigarette lighter: ERIN stands out from the screen — it seems actually to hover before our eyes — in yellow-orange flame.

Finally, one of his 3-D movies. It is called Weekend Panorama — a travelogue — “things to see and do in the area,” with a professional deejay voiceover by Western and a soundtrack by the Beach Boys, among others. It features a unicyclist and jugglers in Balboa Park; sandcastle builders at Imperial Beach; hot-air ballooners in the skies over the Del Mar Fairgrounds; and an antique gas- and steam-engine show in Vista. Nothing too special about any of it, in other words, except that it is standing out from the screen.

He shows me more after the lights are back on. Some wonderfully strange 3-D drawings of his, not from childhood but executed recently. To see a nail standing upright on the page, I am given a pair of anaglyph glasses (red and blue lenses). “The color values of the pencils are extremely important,” he explains.

“Wes had to do a lot of research to find the right pencils,” Erin tells me.

I sense that Western could go on for hours, showing me more parts of his vast collection. He is perhaps the quintessential collector, a man possessed, and obsessed. And although he intimates that he is working on a 3-D project that will make him money — a way to view 3-D images in magazines easily is all he will tell me (“and it’s not lenticular”) — I don’t think that money is all that motivates him.

Still thinking about hobbyists — enthusiasts, devotees, aficionados, habitués — and what makes them different from those who are not, I go to see Don Kirson, with whom I have been corresponding via e-mail about 3-D but have never met. He greets me at the door, a very pleasant, amiable father of two (daughters 6 years and 11 months), and husband of Deming Jones, who is, like Kirson, a clinical psychologist.

Kirson has a study just inside the house’s front entry, with his computer and books within easy reach of his big swivel chair. His Stereo Realist, too, is close at hand, on a shelf. He does his own slide mounting, he tells me, buying the mounts at Nelson Photo. He says, “The clerk didn’t even know what they were,” when he asked for them. He has no mounting machine and uses ordinary scissors for the task. “If the scissors slip, I say, ‘Ah, well, there are 11 more.’ ”

Born in 1957 in Tucson, he moved to San Diego with his parents when he was three. His mother worked in a bank as a proof-machine operator. His father was a cab driver, as well as a disabled Army veteran, and it’s with him that the story of Kirson’s fascination with 3-D begins. “I remember him telling me a story of walking by a shop window [in his hometown of Philadelphia] and seeing pictures of servicemen in 3-D. I remember him saying, ‘They looked real, as if you could see around them.’ ”

Kirson guesses now that they must have been lenticular.

(Gary Schacker provides this good definition of lenticular: “A lenticular is a 3-D print that can be viewed without the aid of any special viewing device. It is usually made from three or more original images. The images are sliced into thin strips and mounted with a special plastic grid over them. This accounts for the tiny ridges that can be felt on the surface of a lenticular print. The strips and grid combine to send left-eye information to your left eye and right info to your right eye. There are several multi-image point-and-shoot cameras, including disposable ones that are being offered today. A well-made lenticular print can be quite impressive. You see them occasionally on the covers of videotapes, cereal boxes, etc., etc.”)

Kirson’s father also told him about the 3-D movies of the ’50s, and later father and son went to 3-D movies together, including The Bubble, made in 1966 by the old radio writer Arch Oboler and starring Michael Cole, who appeared in television’s Mod Squad. “It was advertised as portraying ‘the fourth dimension,’ which was supposed to be the ‘terror’ dimension,” recalls Don, who laughs at the pretense and his gullibility as a nine- or ten-year-old.

The next thing Don recalls is seeing an exhibition by the San Diego club at the Del Mar Fairgrounds. There was a whole line of stereoviews set up in a line of kiosks. Stepping up to the eyeholes in the first one, he found himself staring at Nixon “in nineteen fifty-whatever waving at people who were watching him in the parade.” He was suddenly on the street with Nixon and couldn’t quite believe it. He was 12 or 13, which would put it at the time of Nixon’s first term in the White House.

He started doing research on 3-D at the library’s downtown branch, checking out “dusty, never-checked-out stereo books.” Years later — in fact, not too long ago — he went back to find those books again; he says they were “missing in action,” neither discarded nor out, just missing.

Don became obsessed. Like Wes Western, he started using red and green pencils to make 3-D drawings — geometric things. He was, he realizes, “playing with my mind.”

With his friend Dave Wiener he started making stereophotographs. They took snapshots around their Clairemont neighborhood, mounted them side by side, and looked at them through Wiener’s grandfather’s old stereoscope. Later, the two of them actually made a primitive 3-D movie. They named their method “Wienerama” and imagined the curtain going narrower and narrower instead of wider and wider as it did for Cinerama. They showed their movies to their moms, and Kirson remembers Mrs. Wiener saying, “I don’t know, boys,” and shaking her head.

“ ‘Get a girlfriend,’ ” he says he can imagine others saying of him and of his hobby in those teenage years.

Incidentally, Don has a great command of gesture. He can mimic perfectly these people and voices — it’s his school drama experience showing through, which started when he wrote the school play for his sixth grade. Significantly, it had to do with time travel. “It was about slowing the speed of light,” says Kirson. “I knew that you had to approach the speed of light to experience time distortions, but I didn’t know how to get a person to go that fast while still staying in the lab — all the characters had to stay in the lab because it was a puppet show with one lab set. So I came up with the idea that the time traveler would spin at the speed of light inside a chamber and travel back into time. At that age I didn’t understand about centrifugal force! This was our Thanksgiving play and the scientists were traveling back to witness the first Thanksgiving.”

He and his father continued to see 3-D films together. In 1974, when he was 17, they went to see Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein. It was projected horribly, and they ended up walking out.

Vibeke Sorensen told me that day at her house in Solana Beach, “I have a friend who jokes that the problem back in the ’50s was that you had one-eyed projectionists.” The real trouble, she said, is that both films have to be in synch “temporally, spatially, and focally. If any one of those things is off, you get the headache.” What often happened in the old days was that the films were moving at slightly different rates of speed. Or one got damaged, cut, and spliced; and the other didn’t. Or one experienced slippage, and then the other did, and then… Ooow. Pass the aspirin.

After graduation from Clairemont High School in 1975, Kirson went on to ucsd and majored in psychology; after that he worked for one lucrative year doing research for ibm; then he got a Ph.D. in cognitive/experimental psychology at the University of Denver. He did more research for a number of years; later, he “respecialized” as a clinical psychologist and is currently a learning-disabilities specialist at the University of San Diego.

It’s the researcher in him, however, who says wistfully, “If I had a million years and several lifetimes, I would design a study that would try to find out why some people get taken by 3-D and some don’t.” He admits that 3-D is “an oddity,” “an acquired taste,” and that for some people the extra effort required, the glasses, yields “a payoff that’s not that great.” They “don’t clamor for it.” They look through the viewer at the slides he has made lately, say “Oh, wow,” rather lacklusterly, and then hand it back to him.

What he believes is that there is “a kind of personality that likes these things.”

He says his father really didn’t have it. “I remember once my father saying to me, ‘You know, Donald, I got news for you, the whole world is in 3-D. Just take a look around you.’ ”

Kirson cites “The Big Five” personality determinators that were devised by P.T. Costa Jr. and R.R. MacRae in 1992. (See www.centacs.com for a full discussion.) One of them is “openness to new experience.” “Some people are open to new things and to getting excited about them,” and some people simply aren’t. Others are “much more insulated, self-protective.”

At ibm in Hawthorne, New York, in 1986, he did a “fascination” study that was designed to give the company information about those who become fascinated with computers, but Kirson feels it could be applied to other fascinations too, one being a fascination with 3-D imagery.

He says he found that there were two types of fascination. The first type occurs “when the thing violated your world view.” He gives this example: you’re not too surprised to hear that a 10,000-pound gorilla can sit on you and kill you, but when you hear about the small African frog whose sweat can kill you, then you can become fascinated. “ ‘I never knew that,’ ” he mimics someone saying. “And the more basic the violation, the greater the fascination.”

The second type of fascination is one that holds the possibility of reward, although the reward is just out of reach. It gives the illusion that “with further effort you might just get it this time. It’s the fascination that some out-of-reach women hold for men.”

It made me wonder: Is it possible that 3-D lovers think that the next time they really will be swept into the other world that they are seeing? It wouldn’t be a conscious thought, of course.

But there is another component to fascination with 3-D, Kirson thinks; it’s one that’s present in computer fascination as well. “There is an element of wanting to control a situation, of being in a world that you can absolutely control. You’re experiencing it, it’s compelling, but you’re at a very safe distance.”

Later in the evening, when I ask Kirson what he takes photos of these days, he says that he uses the camera “archivally” now — to document the family, places where he works, things like that, rather than to get special effects, as he once did with Dave Wiener in his Clairemont neighborhood. He attributes it to early middle-age — his realization that time is so short, that time passes so quickly. “You know, I was thinking about getting older, as I find myself doing more and more these days, and I remember thinking, rather morbidly, that someday I will probably be looking at those pictures and wishing I could step through and go back to those days.”

In the past few years, of course, he has also seen all the imax 3-D films, where “you’re basically seeing something that looks like you and me sitting at the table.” Of the Mark Twain movie, with its straight documentary style, stills of Keystone stereoviews, and a voiceover, he says he was, ironically, impressed by the “ordinariness” of it. “I felt like I was standing right there. ‘Oh, so that’s what the Mississippi looks like,’ ” he says, mimicking himself perfectly.

To the question, Has he succeeded in getting anybody else interested in 3-D, Don Kirson says, “Absolutely, unqualifiedly, no.” He forgets that he was the one who introduced it to Dave Wiener way back when.

I speak to Wiener one morning in the Nordstrom coffee shop at University Towne Centre.

Wiener talks of making the 3-D movie with Kirson long ago, using a traditional Super-8 home-movie camera to which they added mirrors, bolting everything down inside a big box. “The thing was huge,” says Wiener, who makes his living as a senior editor at POV Magazine, published in Hollywood by the Producers Guild of America, and who also has written on film and photography for American Cinematographer, Cahiers du Cinema, and The Journal of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. Their movie didn’t have a plot; it consisted of them shooting people walking toward them, jabbing a broomstick in the direction of the lens, that sort of thing, says Wiener. The film is still somewhere at his parents’ house, he says. But it would take “a bulldozer” to find it.

When he and Kirson decided to make their own stereoviews, putting snapshots side by side, they used Wiener’s Ricohflex, a Japanese copy of a Rolleiflex, with a vertical arrangement, which means that you look down into it to see the view in front of you. They moved the lens as precisely as possible the two-and-a-half inches required. What they took were backyard scenes, says Wiener. “Stuff on the street. We weren’t interested in subject matter. We were impatient. All we wanted was to find out that it worked.”

On the morning we speak, he brings along his secondhand Realist to show me. He says he thinks of it as a camera that “appealed to the dad market [of its time].” But not any old dad. He imagines him as “the guy who would process his own color film in the bathroom on vacation.”

He also brings with him some slides of last year’s Emmys, which he took while standing in the crush of all the other journalists in their black tuxes in broad daylight, focused on “the tiny celebrity” — in one case, Dean Stockwell. Even Wiener, who has lived in San Diego since moving here with his family from the Chicago area in 1966, when he was nine, still marvels at “the intense bright, China blue sky” he captured in his pictures that day.

Wiener says he chose the Emmys slides to show me because it was a subject that “anybody could relate to.” He also notes with pride that they are probably the only stereophotographs of the event in existence. But what I find potentially much more interesting are some other slides that he didn’t bring. These include things like the barbershop in Clairemont where he has been going for 20-odd years and where his father, too, has gone for decades; a delicatessen called Samson’s in La Jolla; a coffee shop in Carlsbad that he and his wife used to frequent when they lived up there; and even the very Nordstrom coffee shop where we are sitting at this moment. He says he also has stereophotographs of grocery stores and gasoline stations, “always making sure to get the price on the pump in the picture.” And he has taken store-window displays, “thinking that it’ll be amusing to see the fashions later.”

When I point out to him that the movie of The Time Machine includes a scene in which the store window changes with the passing of the years, he recalls it perfectly, of course, although he had never made the connection between it and what he is currently doing — “memorializing” things, as he says.

He has also taken stereo slides of empty lots; then a little while later he goes back and takes more of the shopping centers that have inevitably appeared. It reminds me of Vibeke Sorensen’s environmental concerns and her work in progress, as well as other things she said that day in Solana Beach.

“When people first started to talk about virtual reality,” Sorensen told me, “I would say, ‘What isn’t?’ ” She is hyper aware that what we see is an illusion, a hallucination, constructed by our brains. That is why she isn’t at all interested in the photo-representational. She calls her work “nonobjective” but “informed by gestures and shapes in the real world.”

She once gave a talk, “From Stereoscopes to Virtual Reality.” She believes that the people making 19th-century stereo-zoetropes were already anticipating virtual reality, zoetropes being “pre-cinematic animation devices consisting of cylinders with slits cut in their sides and sequences of drawings placed in them, which when spinning, appear to move” and stereo-zoetropes being two zoetropes, one for each eye.

“Patents were taken out. They didn’t call it VR, but they were thinking about it. What they lacked was the computer technology.”

She referred to computers as “a transformative instrument. Once information is digitized it can be transformed. And because it’s transformative,” she said, making the biggest leap of all, “it’s mythical.”

She said she anticipates the day when VR would be “two-way and in real time.”

Like a real-time teleporter? I asked.

“Yes, like a 3-D presence.”

Wiener, too, talks about something similar to this, since he has read a number of books that deal with military remote viewing, or mrv in the parlance. “To see it without being there” is basically the idea. “Where’s the kidnapped general?” you could ask someone, and they would be able to tell you. Police psychics certainly use it, Wiener points out. “And they are more open about it than the military is.”

When I get back to the East Coast, I make a trip to the imax theater at 68th Street and Broadway in New York. T-Rex is showing there; so are some others. Being a word person, I choose to see Mark Twain.

It is a weekday afternoon. I pay my $9.50 and take the escalator up four levels. An usher hands me a pair of heavy black polarized glasses, and I enter the theater.

The huge twin 70mm projectors are visible in the glass projection booth, looking the way regular projectors would look to mice.

The screen, eight stories high and ten stories across, looks like the sky itself.

The theater — amphitheater — holds 600, but by the time the movie is about to start, there are only 11 other people there with me, receiving the instructions from the ushers. We are told to press a button on the side of the glasses. If a light comes on, it means that the infrared sensor (designed to maintain synch between the rapidly alternating right and left images) is functioning properly. There is nothing else to do but put them on, adjust the head strap, and get ready.

The effect is uncanny. Don Kirson was right: what is amazing is the “ordinariness” of it. There is Mark Twain, standing by the window of his Hartford house, fully rounded, a solid form. And there is the brown Mississippi River rolling along. And yet, instead of seeming larger than life, the author in his rumpled white suit and his world and his time seem “actual” size. Everything seems to be at my own vulnerable, understandable level. I have a notebook in my hand, prepared to jot down my impressions.

Do I need to tell you that I wrote not a thing?

And yet, I have not become a 3-D buff myself. I am too much of a person in love with words. When Kirson asked me what personally brought me the pleasure, mixed with “a bittersweet longing,” that 3-D viewing brings him, I had to say books — reading. Isn’t it, really, the same thing? The authors I love are able to create an illusion that, somehow, makes the “realism real.”

I cry every time it happens. n

— Jeanne Schinto

Jeanne Schinto is the author of three books — a novel, a short-story collection, and, most recently, Huddle Fever (Knopf, 1995), nonfiction about the old textile mill town Lawrence, Massachusetts. She lives in Andover, Massachusetts.

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