Stereoscopic Paris by Philip Arnold

The Eiffel Tower is many things to many people. Completed in 1889 by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel as the crown of that year’s Exposition, the tower officially celebrated the centennial of the French Revolution. Although being the highest structure in the world at that time—as well as the highest flagpole—it was intended to remain only twenty years, being saved due to the benefit of its telegraphic antennae. For others, the tower was a monstrosity, an architectural aberration, and worse, “metal asparagus.”

 

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For me, the iconic tower is an image that appears as I hold my childhood View-Master to the light. Although I live in a three-dimensional world and can maintain multiple points of view, I am struck by the uncanny appearance of the tower as it transcends the space that confines it. Accompanying this visual sensation—that a multi-planed, blue-skied Parisian afternoon expands beyond my hands—is a sense of déjà vu. It strikes me that the image I now see is the one that always flashes before my mind’s eye at the mention of the Eiffel Tower—as if, at a young age, this View-Master image had been imprinted into the provinces of my subconscious.

 

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Two hundred and seventy-six years before the Eiffel Tower was unveiled to the world, a French Jesuit, Francois d’Aguillion, coined the term stereoscopique in his treatise on optics. In 1839, Sir Charles Wheatstone introduced a new invention which he named the Stereoscope, a device that allowed two slightly different photographs to be reflected by mirrors to the eye as one single image, creating the illusion of depth. The stereoscope underwent several improvements, namely the introduction of a viewing lens by Sir David Brewster in 1849. The stereoscope and the accompanying stereoview cards were enormously popular through the mid-eighteen to early nineteen hundreds. Established in 1850, the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company listed over a hundred thousand stereo photographs in their 1858 catalogue. During the Belle Époque, the stereoscope was the latter day equivalent of the television, providing a popular attraction at gatherings. One can imagine the conversation: “Have you heard? Madame Deneau has just received her new viewing cards of Marseille.” “Mon Dieu! My carriage, and quickly!” Well-dressed and no doubt gloved, stereoview connoisseurs arose who could discern the artistic nuances of not just two, but all three pictorial dimensions.

 

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After my “memory” of the tower was reacquainted with the actual image that inspired it, a lingering sense of nostalgia remained. But nostalgia for what? It would not be nostalgia for Paris if I have not actually experienced the city by walking through the Luxembourg Gardens, visiting the Louvre, or expatriating myself to an outdoor café. The 50s-era stereoview images of Paris also belong to a generation earlier than my own. The couture in fashion recalls the age of my grandparents, a time when men wore hats, and white socks could be worn with black shoes. Mothers and fathers are seen walking hand-in-hand with their children. The automobiles, now considered vintage, appear without the clutter of bumper stickers or rearview mirror accoutrements. My nostalgia, then, is not for some bygone generation or place—but a longing, nonetheless, for some undetermined experience.

 

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One hundred years after the introduction of stereoscopic photography, William Gruber, an organ maker, introduced the View-Master at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Along with Harold Graves, who ran a company that specialized in picture post cards, they created a new company that produced View-Masters and the picture reels that accompany the toy. It wasn’t until 1951, though, when View-Master acquired the Tru-Vue Company, who held the license to use Disney characters, that the device could truly be called a toy. Initially focused on reels with images from national parks and other scenic attractions, the View-Master company would later provide the U.S. Government during World War II with thousands of reels used as an aid in the identification of airplanes and warships. Purchased by Tyco Toys in 1989, the View-Master is still produced today. There have been an estimated one billion View-Master reels sold since the invention of the device in 1938, exactly four times the two million, five hundred thousand rivets that hold together the Eiffel Tower.

 

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The human eyes are roughly two and a half inches apart. This intraocular distance creates two slightly different images, or binocular disparities, which are sent at one time to the mind. In a process known as stereopsis, the mind fuses the two images, giving depth to the world around us in the form of solid or three-dimensional objects—this notion of three-dimensional appearance is rooted in the Greek word for solid, stereos—and the parallax phenomenon of stereopsis is at work within the View-Master. Looking inside, the left eye sees one image while the right eye sees a nearly identical image, one taken at a slightly different angle along the same horizontal plane. Then: voilà.

 

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The beautiful blooms in the gardens of the Chateau de Fontainebleau are immutable, eternal, and without blemish. The world revealed to us through the View-Master is not the world in which we live. The Paris I see when looking into my stereoscopic toy seems to me more than real; in fact, it seems perfect. The colors of the trees and sky are exquisitely vivid, the cobblestones and quays are newly swept, and the sun shines on the citizens who jaunt through flower-lined parks and drink espressos at outdoor cafes. In one scene, the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur on the hill of Montmartre presides over a jeune fille holding a doll in one hand and in the other, the hand of a slightly older girl. Summer never fades within the View-Master, this Grecian urn of Parisian pleasures.

 

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All photographic presentations are not equal. The View-Master is not the photograph, but rather a medium through which a photograph can be experienced. And this is the charm of stereoscopic photography: depth. Normal photographs, like paintings, offer us perspective, but three-dimensional photographs offer a pictorial environment in which objects appear in multiple planes as embodiments of mass occupying real space. This spatial quality works through the appearance of several distinct layers of depth, creating the illusion of a vanishing plane of overlapping objects that extends to a hyper-foreground where we, as observers, imaginatively stand. This spatial continuity between the scene and the observer does not exist in the viewing of two-dimensional photography. Our experience in the View-Master, however, imitates our perceptual experience in the world. The optical magic of the View-Master is the sensation that we are actually there, there being the scene before our eyes. Our vantage point is the place in the picture where we emerge as both observer and bystander. In viewing multiple images on a reel, the pictorial environment expands and creates a sense of proximity. Beyond even this continuous impression of space is the coalescing of time, as each image of Paris, seen one by one over and over again, becomes a collective experience. The View-Master’s unique ability to present a mosaic of images as a unified experience creates, finally, the impression of a memory.

 

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In childhood, we are innocents of time. During my explorations outdoors and games inside during the 70s, I live in a blissful presentness. Even as patterns of these activities emerge, the days still seem to me bereft of any meaningful linearity. As a young child, time seems to move in a slow spiral from the still point of just then, as the forest appears to expand in my widening circulations. I explore space, but am effortlessly lost in time. The temporally static world of the View-Master syncs with my own compressed sense of the moment: an image stills the present until the reel rotates and reveals the next, offering an intimation of time in the scene’s suspended explorations through the volumetric wonders of the Grand Canyon.

 

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The View-Master is not a game in the strictest sense; there are no rules, no winners or losers, no luck or skill involved. What play one might associate with it comes from the elevated sense of wonder or curiosity it inspires. It is foremost a moment or so of strange conjuring whose technology rises above a Lite-Bright and not quite as high as my once beloved walkie-talkies. As with certain relics from my childhood, returning to the View-Master evokes in me the predicament of yearning. I gaze in and the sky surrounding the Eiffel Tower is still unblemished, even after forty years have weathered my memory of similar blue skies illuminating my childhood days. The perfection which I long to recapture is more than the freedom of play during those sunny days; it is the mindlessness of never expecting them to end. In the backlit and expansive world of the View-Master, then as now, they never do.

 

 

 

 

Philip Arnold now calls Ohio home after spending the majority of his life along the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. His most recent essays have appeared in North Dakota Quarterly and Adventure Cyclist. His poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Midwest Quarterly, Sou’wester, Southern Poetry Review, Rattle, and The Galway Review. He was awarded a 2016 Individual Excellence Award (Poetry) by the Ohio Arts Council. 



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