In the Footsteps of Victorian Stereo-Photographers

In the Footsteps of Victorian Stereo-Photographers

By Dr. Peter Blair

One of the fun things about having a collection of stereoviews is visiting the locations portrayed and trying to identify the spot where the intrepid Victorian photographer set up his stereo-camera. In particular, when researching my books, “Chamonix Mont Blanc in 3D” and “Scotland in 3D”, I was  inspired to travel to many of the locations on the Victorian tourist trail. Sometimes the view remains remarkably similar, but often it has changed almost beyond recognition.

A while back, I went on a day’s introduction to “wet collodion” photography and it further increased my huge admiration for the early Victorian photographers, who mainly practised this complex and delicate process. They had to freshly prepare each fragile glass negative in situ and process the image when the plate was still wet (hence the name of the technique). The amount of equipment they needed to carry around in addition to their camera and tripod was astounding – darkroom tent, boxes of glass plates, collodion, silver solution, developer, fixer, bottles, baths, etc. They also needed access to copious amounts of water. Imagine the difficulties encountered by Auguste-Rosalie Bisson at the frozen summit of Mont Blanc, or Francis Frith in the middle of the boiling Egyptian desert. George Washington Wilson reportedly even dug little wells near springs by beauty spots to provide a ready source of clean water for his next trip!

When I stand in the footprints of these great photographers and press the button on my iphone (usually twice for a cha cha 3D shot) or use my Fuji W3 digital camera and immediately review the results, I can not help but think that we have lost some of the magic of photography along with the craftsmanship.  Fortunately, the surprising 3D magic of stereoscopy remains as powerful as ever!

Today, on Stereoscopy Day, I would like to share a few “then” and “now” views with you, with associated observations and hopefully inspire you to take a few yourself! It is difficult to recreate an identically framed picture without a large selection of lenses, however, you can still get the idea.

Many thanks to Maciek Samulski for permission to use his excellent image.

Bibliography

Roger Taylor, “George Washington Wilson – Artist and Photographer (1823 – 93)”, London Stereoscopic Company, 2018, ISBN 978095744692

Peter Blair, “Scotland in 3D – A Victorian Virtual Reality Tour”, P3DB Publications, 2018, ISBN 9781527225527

Peter Blair, “George Washington Wilson – Stereoviews – A Collector’s Catalogue”, print-on-demand from www.scotlan3d.com

Peter Blair, “Chamonix Mont Blanc in 3D – A Journey Through the Stereoscope from the 1850s to Today”, Belvedere, 2015, ISBN 9782884193580

Jemima Morrel, “Miss Jemima’s Swiss Journal”, reprinted by Putnam & Co., 1963    

“Then” – George Washington Wilson – 181 Roslin Chapel, 1862

“Now” – Maciek Samulski – Rosslyn Chapel, 2019

In this magnificent modern stereoview, Maciek Samulski restaged Peter Blair and Ralph Reiley in the positions of sculptor Lawrence Baxter and stonemason J. Lawrence Tweedie in Wilson’s 1862 view of the Lady Chapel during restoration work.

Even although most historic buildings remain completely recognisable from their antique photographs, changes can often be observed. The most obvious one in this case is the installation of stained glass windows in the chapel. This actually happened in the late 1860s and caused G W Wilson to return and renew his portfolio of views of the chapel, to include the stained glass. Many of these later stereoviews, from the early 1870s, were actually taken for Wilson by the photographer John Thomson of Roslin, who was also conveniently the warden of the chapel.

“Then” Thomas Rodger, St Andrews, c.1860

“Now” Blair, St Andrews, 2017

Thomas Rodger (1833-1883) was renowned for his portraiture. Only a few of his stereoviews are known. He was the assistant of local St Andrews doctor and pioneer photographer, John Adamson, the brother of the highly-regarded early calotype photographer Robert Adamson, of “Hill and Adamson” fame. Rodger went to Glasgow to study medicine, however, Adamson persuaded him to instead come back to St Andrews and open the first commercial photographic studio there in 1849. Sir David Brewster, the principal of St Andrews University, was pivotal in making St Andrews a hotspot for early photography. Brewster developed a compact lenticular stereoscopic viewer, which was exhibited at the 1851 London Great Exhibition and became a huge commercial success. By 1860, stereoviews based on Brewster’s format were the best-selling format of photograph.

The picturesque streets of the historic centre of St Andrews retain many ancient buildings, most now owned by the University. The major changes observed today are tree growth, tarmac instead of cobbles and the replacement of horse-drawn carriages by the automobile.

Thomas Rodger’s Studio Blue Plaque, 6 St Mary’s Place, St Andrews (now University Career Centre)

“Then” GW Wilson, 802 – George Square, Glasgow, 1867

“Now” Blair, George Square, Glasgow, 2017

Unlike the historic centre of St Andrews, the elegant Georgian symmetry of George Square in Glasgow has been radically altered over the years. Certain elements have been retained, including the many statues. These include the earliest statue to commemorate Sir Walter Scott, on the tall pillar, and equestrian statues of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on identical red granite plinths, which were installed in the square in 1866.

Although my recent snapshot (Fuji W3) was not intended to mirror that of Wilson, it is taken from the same corner of the square, albeit a different vantage point. Ithighlights significant urban development and changes. On comparing it with the Wilson view, I was intrigued to see that the equestrian statues appear to have mysteriously turned and trotted off to a new location. In 1867 they were aligned on either side of the Walter Scott pillar, which is no longer the case. A bit of research reveals that they were moved in 1924, when a World War cenotaph was added to the square.  

“Then”, GW Wilson, 246 – The Old Man of Storr, Skye, 1861

“Now” Blair, The Old Man of Storr, Skye, 2013

Wilson’s moody view of the Storr rocks on Skye was probably constrained by the weather when he visited. His images of the remote Highlands and Islands of Scotland were claimed to have spurred tourism to these areas, in a similar fashion to the explosion of tourism in the Trossachs on the back of Sir Walter Scott’s writings.

Today’s landscape is little changed, despite the daily tread of hundreds of boots.

“Then” – Unidentified photographer, Mer de Glace from Flégère, c.1865

“Now” – Blair, Mer de Glace from Flégère, 2014

Unlike the Scottish mountains, views of the Alps highlight huge changes over the past 150 years. Antique stereoviews of the Alps were very popular and Chamonix was probably the second most photographed area in France after Paris. Today, these views provide a shocking insight into the impact of climate change on alpine glaciers. In the 1860s, at the end of the Little Ice Age, the Mer de Glace glacier reached the Chamonix valley floor at the village of les Bois. Today this glacier can not even be seen from the valley floor. From the vantage point of Flégère, almost 1000m higher up on the opposite side of the valley the staggering volume of ice loss is tragically revealed; a dry, empty valley where the glacier once flowed.

To a human, an increase in average temperature of 1.5 degrees over a period of years is virtually imperceptible, therefore we need a proxy measure to highlight the significance of climate change. Comparing antique photographs of glaciers with today provides that evidence in abundance.

“Then” – Ferrier & Soulier, L’Aiguille de Charmoz prise du Chapeau, c.1861

“Now” – Blair, View from le Chapeau, 2017

Getting closer provides an even more shocking picture. In 1861, Ferrier & Soulier captured the view from the small mountain snack bar called le Chapeau. The glacier here was described vividly by Jemima Morrell, who visited in 1863 on Thomas Cook’s first organised tour of the Alps:   

…from the Chapeau to the valley, our route lay at the side of the glacier, which, in heaving over some unseen rocky bar, is rent into a thousand splinters, the most grotesque in form and suggestive to the imagination of countless fantastic objects. We traced the serrated spine of some ante-diluvian monster urging a kilted highlander to charge on some enemy below. There were also hooded friars, a Madonna and Child, and ghostly figures such as would pass through Bunyan’s brain when he peopled the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Spires, pyramids, sphinxes, obelisks  and every design in monumental marble might find a model in that sea of rugged ice.

The view today shows that over 150m thickness of ice has been lost, leaving a dry glacier, just traces of residual ice covered by an ugly layer of gravel and rocks. Although some of this loss has been cyclical in nature,  the acceleration of melting due to anthropogenic climate change is significant and undeniable. Consequences include increased risk of flash floods, drought, loss of hydro-electric capacity and reduced mountain tourism.

Dr. Peter Blair

#StereoscopyDay

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