The Art of Stereoscopy: Colleen Woolpert

The Art of Stereoscopy: Colleen Woolpert

Happy Stereoscopy Day! What an honor to be invited to share my work with you here. Thank you, Rebecca!

A twin with a camera walks into an antique shop. But this isn’t a joke, it’s how my passion took hold. I had been a photographer for a few years by 2000 when my twin sister was in vision therapy to acquire depth perception and I first encountered a curious optical device that held a pair of similar photographs. Raising it to my eyes, I was transported to an Austrian parade circa 1900. The frozen moment appeared in three dimensions, encompassing my entire view. As I voyeuristically lingered, more details emerged, including a monkey on someone’s shoulder! That Holmes stereoscope went home with me, as did a second one for my twin because I thought it might help her see what the world was “supposed to” look like. 

I’m now an interdisciplinary lens-based artist inspired by early photographic history, particularly attempts to bring the photograph to life through depth and motion. With stereoscopy, I’m especially enamored with the stereograph, which seems a foregone conclusion given my love of photography, my twin’s struggle with depth perception, and an inherent identification with side-by-side images (we were often asked as children to pose thusly for the twin comparison game). 

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Beyond the personal connection, stereographs fascinate me on their own terms. They illustrate binocular vision by showing us that two slightly disparate views of the same scene create the illusion of depth. The images are right there to compare, the magic is laid bare—yet we’re still in awe. I also thrill at their rebellious, equivocal nature. Stereographs are equally but not quite photographs, art objects, and interactive media. In the contemporary photography world, their diminutive size fails to impress, and, what’s more, they require a stereoscope to “work.” Difficult, misunderstood, and marginalized, they hide out in the archives. 

Too bad, because stereographs are among the first documentary photographs of a town and its people, with the added bonus of time travel through the stereoscope. I have a special fondness for pre-instantaneous views with motion blur or those taken sequentially, where an element appears in one image but not the other. I also covet stereographs with distinctive mounts—glass, gilded, die-cut, embossed, with fine typefaces and decorative elements, etc.—and certain collector’s rejects like pseudoscopic views and those lovingly inked up by some long-deceased owner. Tissue views ratchet up both the aesthetic and transformative experience, and are just my cup of meticulously-brewed tea. 

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My multi-faceted TwinScope project aims to elevate stereographs, promote their display, and address my conceptual concerns. Everything that I do with stereographs falls under the banner named for my TwinScope Viewer, an art object/patented stereoscope for stereograph display. I began designing the viewer around 2010 after being offered an exhibition of my stereographs. Upon framing and matting them as I had done with my regular photography, I looked for a stereoscope that would translate this handheld pastime to the gallery wall in high quality akin to the Holmes device. When nothing offered, I began a journey of several years and many tears that ultimately paid off. The TwinScope Viewers that I make by hand not only serve my own stereographs and historical exhibitions that I produce, but have assisted over one hundred institutions, collectors, and artists internationally who acquired viewers for their own stereograph display needs. 

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I take great joy in liberating stereographs from the archives and sharing contemporary stereographers’ work. As for my own stereographs, I have heaps of standalone 3D captures that may or may not see the light of day. My finished stereograph projects run the thematic and technical gamut and stem from my curiosity to learn more about a given subject. They also borrow elements from my favorite historic views, namely consideration for the whole object, not simply the photographic image. Projects found in the TwinScope section of my website (https://colleenwoolpert.com/) are accompanied by artist statements regarding concept and process, a few that I’ll summarize below.

With my first project, The Night, I took my flash-adorned Sputnik medium-format camera to college house parties and made shamelessly voyeuristic images about the alcohol-fueled search for connection that I once participated in myself. Red Twin Blue Twin is a series of posed portraits that led to a DNA test; the stereograph design features suede mounts with cover flaps that recall early cased photographs. Virus Romance began with smartphone images taken while doing the cha-cha with wind-blown poppies and became the takeaway of a brief relationship. With this last project, I’m still exploring different presentations; my website shows glass-encased versions, while I’ve just recently completed an accordion-fold book that sits atop a pedestal with a nearby TwinScope Viewer. 

Colleen Woolpert, Virus Romance, book of stereographs and Slim TwinScope Viewer

Art that truly gets me is that which prompts discovery and creates a sense of wonder. I’m excited by quiet works that provoke a double-take and then open up through prolonged investigation to reveal a network of associations, rewarding me in equal measure to my investment. Stereographs invite such an experience, as with the stereoscope one sees details invisible to the naked eye and becomes immersed in a seemingly life-size environment. I adore this private theater which is anti-spectacle yet sublimely felt. 

Conceptually I wish to communicate certain values through my work, among them skepticism of first impressions and how multiple viewpoints expand one’s perspective and promote empathy. On a practical note, my twin has successfully gained depth perception through vision therapy reinforced by my stereoscopes, and we’d be glad to share those resources with others. Get in touch if you’d like to connect for that or any other reason. One of the largest benefits of stereoscopy has been connecting with lovely, interesting people and exchanging ideas. I look forward to more of that and appreciate making this introduction. 

Cheers,

Colleen Woolpert

https://colleenwoolpert.com/

#StereoscopyDay

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