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United States in Stereo: In the Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views

Stereoscopic views, or stereographs, were as varied and popular in the 19th century as television continues to be in our time. This presentation will eventually include all the United States stereoscopic views in the Dennis Collection (more than 40,000 items), front and back, organized by State or Subject Series.

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Digital ID: G91F317_018ZF Lifting over cable between Columbia and Wrightsville, Pa.; Aug 9th 1897. Albumen print stereoscopic view. Digital ID: G91F317_018ZF

Collection History

The collection bears the name of the native New Yorker who assembled it over a period of more than six decades, Robert N. Dennis (1900-1983); the story of its acquisition has two stages, 40 years apart. The first begins with a 1939 exhibition in New York City for the one-hundredth anniversary of photography's discovery that featured stereographs from Robert Dennis's collection. Through the efforts of Sylvester L. Vigilante, an NYPL librarian specializing in American History, the Library purchased from Mr. Dennis his entire holding of approximately 35,000 stereographs, which he had called then "the largest known collection of its kind." Reporting the acquisition, the NYPL Annual Report for 1940 claimed presciently that someday historians would consider stereoscopic views as important for research as early American imprints. One stipulation of the purchase was that the collection carry Mr. Dennis's name. With the proceeds of the sale - in the final years of the Great Depression, the sum of $5,000 must have been princely indeed - Mr. Dennis bought his wife Marianne a fur coat and moved from Brooklyn to the northern suburb of Pelham. The backs of the stereographs acquired at this time carry the stamp "Robert Dennis Collection/N.Y.P.L." Over the years, Library staff interfiled occasional subsequent acquisitions of stereoscopic views, which bear their own distinct and not always traceable identification stamps.

In 1981, with the Photography Collection newly established as a curatorial department, Mr. and Mrs. Dennis, who had relocated to Williamsburg, Virginia, in the 1950s, became reacquainted with the Library and visited while in New York to see "their" collection in its new circumstances. They were so pleased that they graciously offered to donate their completely new collection, assembled since 1941, of another 35,000+ stereographs. Staff examined and inventoried the collection over Thanksgiving weekend 1982, and returned in late January to pack the stereos for air shipment to New York. The collection arrived safely at the Library on the very day Mr. Dennis passed away, January 31, 1983, secure in the knowledge that his treasured collection would be both well-served and well-used. (Stereoscopic views from this generous gift are identified by the stamp "Dennis Coll/83PH2.") Later that year, a memorial tribute to Mr. Dennis appeared in Stereo World, the magazine of the National Stereoscopic Association.

The Dennis Collection's total size of more than 72,000 stereoscopic views (counting the foreign and genre sections that are not part of this presentation) and its international scope make it one of the largest and most diversely representative holdings of its kind in the world. Its primary organization is by geography, the most common research approach. In 1989-91, funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities enabled further processing of the United States portion of the collection as well as online cataloging for about 800 published series or geographical groups in the Library's catalog. Arrangement of the published series is by item number; within the geographical groups arrangement is by creator, publisher, or series name. During the project, volunteers recorded the catalog record number of each stereograph in pencil along its lower right edge and placed each view into a protective polyester sleeve. In the 1990s, the 12,000 views depicting the tri-state region of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut debuted as "Small-town America" in the Library of Congress's "American Memory" website, NYPL's first large-scale digital image collection on the Internet.

Background



How They Work

Stereoscopic photography recreates the illusion of depth by utilizing the binocularity of human vision. Because our two eyes are set apart, each eye sees the world from a slightly different angle. Our brains combine these two different eye-images into one, a phenomenon that enables us to "see," ever so slightly, around the sides of objects, providing spatial depth and dimension. Stereoscopic views consist of two nearly twin photographs -- one for the left eye, one for the right. Viewing the side-by-side images though a special lens arrangement called a stereoscope helps our brains combine the two flat images and "see" the illusion of objects in spatial depth.

Entertainment and Information

Photographers around the world produced millions of stereoscopic views between 1850 and 1930. Their popularity soared when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert received the gift of a stereoscopic viewer at the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851. Soon after, the American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes called for the establishment of "special stereographic collections just as we have professional and other libraries." Around the world, independent and entrepreneurial photographers broke into the growing market for illustrations of all types of subjects: local history and events, grand landscapes, foreign monuments, charming genre scenes, portraits of notables and urban architecture. War and disasters such as floods, fires, train-wrecks, and earthquakes were enormously popular subjects.

By the 1890s, humor and sentimentality had come to dominate the genre market, while leading publishers such as Underwood & Underwood and the Keystone Company produced formulaic topical and documentary series covering landscape, travel, and the growth of cities. Though independent publishers and talented individual cameramen prospered throughout the stereo era, by the end of the century the camera work had attained a uniformity of appearance that prefigured the compositional conventions of routine wire service and publicity photography. In contrast, the artistic and enterprising photographic productions of the earlier period make stereoscopic views even more interesting for the discrete aesthetic visions and regional practices that created them. Stereo views declined in the 1920s and 1930s with the rise of movie newsreels and popular illustrated magazines such as Life.

Just as the television industry has for more than half a century addressed the diverse entertainment tastes and far-ranging information needs of a complex audience, so stereoscopic views entertained and enlightened a similarly broad and eclectic audience a century ago, and often for the same types of profit. During the period between the 1850s and the 1910s, stereos were a mainstay of home entertainment, perhaps second only to reading as a personal leisure activity. Like television, stereos were an intimate medium viewed by individuals or small groups at home, or at churches, schools, or clubs. Stereoscopes varied from small, wooden, hand-held devices for viewing single images to large, cabinet-size pieces of furniture that could display a changing series of fifty or more views. The subject matter of stereoscopic views was boundless, appealing to many specialized interests. Like cable television in its present diversity and niche marketing, stereos accommodated tastes ranging from vulgar to refined, from simple to scientific. Production quality was also wide-ranging - from exquisitely sharp original silver prints to indistinct, cheaply produced copies, and eventually half-tone photomechanical processes. The makers of stereos were equally diverse. Into the 1880s, they ranged from eager amateurs photographing family scenes for private distribution to the famed camera artists of the day who demanded high-quality publishing and distribution and got it. By the 1890s, stereo photographers tended to be skilled and enterprising professionals who either sold their images to large commercial producers or worked anonymously under contract to them.

Stereo Views in Research

As visual information, stereoscopic views are valuable for the broad community of students, scholars, specialists, and laymen whose research or interests require pictorial documentation or illustration. The small size of the stereo camera enabled photographers to take a more journalistic approach to accommodate the public's interest in popular subjects; the popularity and accessibility of stereoscopic views assured a steady and profitable market. Often, many of the earliest expeditionary photographers took pictures of the same subject in a range of formats, from stereo to mammoth plates, certain that each size would find its appropriate audience. Conversely, by the 1890s the subject matter of stereo views simply does not appear routinely in larger-format photography. Stereoscopic views include topographic views, local history, events, industries and trade, costume, urban and country life, and portraits. In addition, stereos span 80 years of early photographic practice and are an important source for further researching the history of the medium itself, including glass transparencies, albumen prints, silver gelatin prints, and many variants. As historical records, stereo views have the potential to reveal the way the world appeared through the photographers' and audiences' preconceptions even as they mirror that long-vanished world's physical and contextual reality. On many levels, stereographs continue their expository and illustrative functions, inviting further use and study.

Related Resources

California Museum of Photography. "Stereographs: Three-Dimensional Images" (n.d.) <http://www.cmp.ucr.edu/site/exhibitions/stereo/>

Darrah, William Culp. Stereo Views: A History of Stereographs in America and Their Collection (c1964)

-----. The World of Stereographs (1977)

Earle, Edward W. Points of View, the Stereograph in America: A Cultural History (c1979)

Holmes, Oliver Wendell. "The Stereoscope and the Stereograph." The Atlantic Monthly 3 (June 1859): 738-48 <http://www.cis.yale.edu/amstud/inforev/stereo.html>

Jenkins, Harold F. Two Points of View: The History of the Parlor Stereoscope (1957)

Leggat, Robert. "Stereoscopic Photography." History of Photography (c2003) <http://www.rleggat.com/photohistory/>

National Stereoscopic Association. "Stereoview.org" <http://www.stereoview.org/>

NYPL and American Memory, Library of Congress. "Small-town America: Stereoscopic Views from the Robert N. Dennis Collection" <http://digital.nypl.org/dennis/stereoviews/index.html> and <http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/award97/nyplhtml/dennhome.html>

Selle, Walter. "3D" im Bücherspiegel. Zur Bibliographie der Stereoskopie 1939-1970 nebst Einführungen in die Holographie ... (1971)

Treadwell, T.K., and William C. Darrah. Stereographers of the World. Vol. 1: Foreign; vol. 2: United States (c1994)

Library Division(s)

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