Stereoscopic Photographs in the Collection

Stereoscopy as a concept was first discovered by the physicist and experimental philosopher Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-75) in 1832, prior to the first official announcement of photography’s invention in 1839. Wheatstone soon realised the benefits of applying photographic images to his process, although technical developments in the late 1840s and 1850s made this more viable. The shift from using daguerreotypes to photographs on paper (usually albumen prints) allowed for them to be more easily and widely produced, and stereoscopy’s popularity gained a boost when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert became interested in examples at The Great Exhibition in 1851 at Crystal Palace. By 1860, almost every Victorian middle-class family owned their own stereoscope viewer and an accompanying collection of images. Although their popularity fluctuated as other photographic formats and moving technologies appeared, stereoscopic photographs continued to be produced into the twentieth century and there has been a recent resurgence of interest in historic examples.

Consisting of two photographs of the same scene taken from slightly different angles, stereoscopic photographs were usually mounted alongside one another on a single support of stiff card of a standardised size. When seen through a stereoscope viewer, the illusion of a three-dimensional image is created by mimicking the action of human eyes which each see a slightly different field of vision. Subjects ranged from views of buildings, travel scenes, landscapes, invented tableaux, important events and natural disasters to portraiture, and they provided a fascinating and novel form of entertainment that preceded the moving image.

The National Portrait Gallery’s Collection includes an important stereoscopic daguerreotype of inventor Wheatstone taken by Antoine Claudet (1797-1867) who did much to develop stereoscopic technology, Victorian celebrities and distinguished figures in studio or outdoor surroundings, scenes of royal events and from the farthest reaches of the British Empire, in addition to documentary images from the First World War. The major companies that specialised in producing millions of stereoscopic photographs, such as the London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company (1854-1922), Underwood & Underwood (1881-1940s) and The Keystone View Company (1892-1972), are all represented.

Using digital technology, the two images have been combined to give a sense of the three-dimensional experience provided by the stereoscopic photographs, but without the assistance of a stereoscopic viewer. Click on the images below to see these.