Virtual Empire: Stereo Photography in Britain and Australia 1851–1879

The Origins of Stereoscopy
What is a Stereo Photograph? | The Albumen Print | Mounting Stereo Photographs |
Labelling Stereo Photographs | The French Tissue | Hand Tinted Stero Views |
Dating Stereo Photographs | Publishing Stereo Photographs |
Stereo photography in Britain | Stereo Photography in Australia |
The Cult of the Picturesque |
Photographers A-Z | Select Bibliography

Virtual Empire introduction

For outdoor scenes the binocular camera with lenses of short focus taking two small pictures revolutionized photography in the mid-Victorian era, just as the miniature camera has done in our own time. Compared with the large field cameras with lenses of long focus … these short-focus lenses gave a sharp picture at almost open aperture, thus cutting down exposures drastically, and bringing for the first time 'life' and motion within the scope of photography, in instantaneous views of street life, seascapes with rolling waves, and public ceremonies.
H. Gernsheim, 1955

A Photographic Revolution

Although a pioneer in the history of photography, Gernsheim remains one of the few to highlight the important role of the stereo format in the development of photography from the 1850s to the 1880s. Most historians have tended to focus on the importance of other photographic formats which were produced in limited editions and can sit comfortably on gallery walls.

Before the early 1850s photography remained an interesting but expensive novelty Then, improvements to the negative/positive process and the easing of patent restrictions saw the development of a commercial market for outdoor photography. This interest was matched by the huge wave of popularity for stereo photographs which swept across Britain and the rest of the world after 1851. Their small size made them ideal for capturing a wider range of subjects, yet they also contained an amazing amount of detail that was magnified and turned into a three-dimensional view by a hand-held device called the stereoscope.

While stereo photographs were in great demand, the market for multiple copies of a portrait was limited compared with that of images of famous buildings or a beautiful landscape. This meant that stereos were not only the first photographs to capture many outdoor subjects, they were also the first to be mass produced for the public.

College Green, Dublin

Instantaneous view, College Green, Dublin. c1865, Published by the London Stereoscopic Company.

Between the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 and the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879, millions of stereo photographs were printed. Like the exhibitions held regularly throughout this period, these three-dimensional photographs were not only popular, they heralded important cultural changes in Britain and her colonies. The exhibitions collected objects from around the world and displayed them in buildings where they could educate and uplift the public. The stereo photograph played a similar role except they were not housed in huge galleries and halls but rather in small boxes in Victorian sitting rooms.

Virtual Empire: Stereo Photography in Britain and Australia 1851-1879 draws on the rich holdings of early stereos held in the Museum’s Historic Photograph Collection. Some of these photographs have previously been reproduced as half-stereos – one of the pair of images - but have not previously been exhibited or reproduced as the photographer intended.

The University of Sydney under construction

The University of Sydney under construction, c1858, photographer Professor John Smith.

The Origins of Stereoscopy

Diagram showing a Wheatstone stereo viewer.

1.1 Before the Stereoscope

Three-dimensional vision depends on seeing objects with both eyes simultaneously. But there are other perceptual cues which help to suggest depth. Some of these have been applied in two-dimensional art since Classical times. Among these are shading and the relative sizes of objects. Shading produces the appearance of light falling on a three-dimensional object. Diminishing size suggests increasing distance from the viewer, of a person or a tree, for example. Up to the Middle Ages these techniques were not applied with any rigour. Indeed naturalistic representations were seldom an objective of artists before the Renaissance, and relative size of figures may have had more to do with their relative importance in the story being told than any consideration of perspective.

The mathematically accurate construction of perspective scenes was a significant innovation of art in the Renaissance. This was a feature of the works of artists such as Piero della Francesca, who wrote a treatise on perspective in the fifteenth century. From the Renaissance on, perspective was applied when art was intended to be realistic.

By the eighteenth century, prints were being produced in large numbers for private collectors. Among these were perspective views, especially of townscapes, designed for viewing through the zograscope or optical diagonal machine, which was probably developed in Paris early in the eighteenth century. Viewing such prints through a mirror and lens heightened the perspectival effect but did not produce a truly three-dimensional image. This did not come until the researches of the English physicist Charles Wheatstone in the early nineteenth century.

1.2 Wheatstone Discovers Stereoscopy

Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802-1875) discovered the principal of combining two similar images to create the illusion of depth in the early 1830s. Partner in a firm of musical instrument manufacturers – he invented the concertina – and Professor of Experimental Philosophy at King’s College, London, from 1834, Wheatstone was a pioneer of the electric telegraph and the inventor of numerous scientific devices.

Wheatstone invented several types of stereoscope – a name he coined from the Greek words for ‘solid’ and ‘to look at’ – for viewing pairs of images to imitate what would be seen by each eye. He had stereoscopes made as early as 1832 but did not announce his ideas until 1838. The design of stereoscope Wheatstone favoured involved a pair of mirrors at right angles for viewing images on panels facing each other. A commercial example of such a reflecting stereoscope is illustrated here.

In 1838, the production of two similar but not identical images with any degree of complexity presented difficulties. The announcement of the photographic techniques of Daguerre and Talbot in 1839 held the promise of successful stereoscopic images. Wheatstone took an early interest in photography and encouraged several photographers to take stereo pairs of images in the early 1840s. The results were not altogether successful as photography was still in a very primitive state. Photography only developed to a state where it could be practised widely by the early 1850s, and then stereo photography became a phenomenal craze, but not with the reflecting stereoscope.

1.3 Brewster's Portable Instrument

Sir David Brewster

This hand-coloured card-mounted stereo photograph, showing Sir David Brewster and a Brewster stereo viewer, was published by the London Stereoscopic Company and retailed from their New York shop about 1860. Reproduced courtesy of T.K. Treadwell, Institute for Photographic Research, Texas, USA.

Wheatstone’s reflecting stereoscope being large and cumbersome, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868) devised a smaller, more portable instrument using lenses – referred to as a lenticular stereoscope. Brewster was a scientific editor and writer who was also a leading experimental researcher, especially in optics. He invented an optical toy, the kaleidoscope, which was phenomenally popular in the late 1810s and has continued to be produced. He was also very prone to getting into very public disputes.

Brewster was among those who saw Wheatstone’s demonstration of the stereoscope at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held in Newcastle-on-Tyne in 1838. He was intrigued by the phenomenon of stereoscopy and soon obtained a reflecting stereoscope. In 1849 he proposed his own design of stereoscope consisting of a box with a pair of half lenses and an opening to insert a ‘slide’ – the pair of images mounted side by side.
Brewster was unable to find any prominent scientific instrument maker in Britain to manufacture his design and in 1850 took a prototype on a visit to Paris where he showed it to the optical instrument maker Jules Duboscq. Duboscq began manufacturing lenticular stereoscopes and also taking stereo daguerreotypes. During the Great Exhibition, Duboscq exhibited the new stereoscopes. This was the beginning of the popularity of the stereoscope in the form devised by Brewster. With improvements in photography, especially the introduction of the wet-plate process, stereo photography (and photography generally) became increasingly popular as the 1850s wore on. Over the following decades, numerous variants of the lenticular stereoscope were devised, stereoscopic cameras were invented, and stereoscopic photographs were produced by the million.

What is a Stereo photograph

Medinilla Magnifica, Photographer Ernest Edwards, c1860, published by Lovell Reeve, The Stereoscopic Magazine, May 1861, (right frame only), HP82.56.244

A stereo photograph consists of two photographs, one taken as the left eye sees a view and another slightly offset as the right eye would see the same view. These photographs are mounted on a card which is then placed into a stereoscopic viewer. The stereoscope allows the brain to superimpose the two images, imitating the three-dimensional stereovision of the human eye.

Stereo photographs are essentially the combination of two inventions of the 1830s. Sir Charles Wheatstone announced the first of these in 1838, an optical viewer using mirrors that could combine two separate images representing the slight difference in view between the left and right eyes to produce a three-dimensional effect. The second occurred in 1839 when Louis Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot announced to the world two different photographic processes, the ‘daguerreotype’ and the ‘talbotype’ or ‘calotype’ respectively.

In the 1840s Sir Charles Wheatstone began experimenting with Talbot’s process, which enabled him to place two slightly offset photographic images in his viewer. The success of these experiments inspired a Scotsman, Sir David Brewster, to announce in 1849 his modification of the stereoscope using lenses and thus known as a lenticular stereoscope. It was Brewster’s stereoscope which defined the standard for the format and was popularised from the early 1850s.

Brewster stereoscope

The Brewster Stereoscope. The photograph slides into the back of the viewer and a aprtition keeps the right eye from seeing the picture on the left, and vice versa.

Albumen Print

Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Photographer A.J. Melhuish, c1860, published by Lovell Reeve in The Stereoscopic Magazine, July 1858. HP82.56.198

By 1851 it had become possible to apply a photographic emulsion mixed with either collodion (gun cotton and ether) or albumen (egg white) to a glass plate. The resulting glass negatives were much clearer than the paper negatives used previously. Collodion became the most common emulsion used to make glass negatives because its exposure times were relatively short. Negatives coated in albumen first appeared in 1847. They were highly detailed but slower exposure times limited their appeal.

Instead albumen found its niche in the treatment of the paper used to make positive prints, and from 1855 to 1895 the albumen print on paper predominated. This applied to stereoscopic photographs although occasionally albumen was used to print positive stereo photographs on to glass, producing finely detailed images such as the stereo view of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris. The yellow look which we associate with old photographs, sometimes wrongly referred to as sepia toning, is in fact the staining of the highlights due to the chemical decomposition and fading of albumen

Reference: Sobieszek, 1976, British Masters of the Albumen Print. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London John Towler, 1864, The Silver Sunbeam, Joseph H Ladd, New York, 1864

Hotel de Ville, Paris

Hotel De Ville, Paris, Photographer unknown, c1858, HP82.56.53

Mounting stereo photos

Building the University of Sydney, Australia, Photographer John Smith, c1859, HP81.106.320 (detail)

John Smith was one of the foundation professors at the University of Sydney. A keen amateur photographer, he took stereo photographs of the construction of the Great Hall and clock tower of the Main Building in the late 1850s. Smith exchanged his stereo photographs with other amateurs and the photograph of the clock tower being constructed is from the collection his friend Robert Hunt. While its content is interesting this stereo view provides us with an insight into the difficulties these early photographers faced when mounting their prints on to card.

Building the University of Sydney

Building the University of Sydney, Australia, Photographer John Smith, c1859, HP81.106.320

Most stereo photographers, amateur and professional, used a commercially produced card to mount their views. Typically these mounting boards were composed of thin layers of good quality paper that enclosed a centre filler of poor quality board. Unfortunately this centre often becomes brittle as well as being the source of acidification in the mount and print producing the spots known as foxing.

Smith’s stereo prints are mounted on an inverted card with gold borders and the initials “GR”. These are the initials of the well-known London publishers Gebhardt, Rottmann, & Co. and can be found on the stereo views they published in the late 1850s. Presumably finding they were short of their usual card, either John Smith or Robert Hunt must have used Gebhardt, Rottmann, & Co.’s commercial mount rather than compromise the photograph by putting it on to inferior card.

Building the University of Sydney

Building the University of Sydney, Australia, Photographer John Smith, c1859, HP81.106.320 (detail)

In the Valley of Glendalough, County of Wicklow, Ireland

In the Valley of Glendalough, County of Wicklow, Ireland (left frame only). Photographer unknown, c1865, published by the London Stereoscopic Company.

Label on the back reads, 'By that lake whose gloomy shore Skylarks never warble o'er'. Among all the gems contained in the Emerald Isle "the Glen of the Two Lakes" may be justly esteemed as the first, for here is to be found an unequalled grouping of nearly all of Ireland's characteristic and peculiar charms. An ancient round tower, the date of erection of which is lost in the mists of antiquity; the ruins of the "Severn Churches" comprising the Priory, The 'Cathedral', St. Kevin's Kitchen, Our Lady's Church, The Rhefert Church, or the "Burial-place of Kings," where the tomb of the renowned King O'Tool is still shown to visitors, The Ivy Church, and Teampul-na-skelleg. Most of these ruins exhibit traces of elaborate sculpture, the architecture being of an early date. The "City of Glendalough" as it was anciently called, owes its origins to St. Kevin, who died June 3rd 619. At the extreme end of the valley, above the Upper Lake, are situated the Luganure lead mines, which are well worth a visit, and from the heights above which a magnificent view of the surrounding scenery can be obtained. Near the entrance to the valley, the visitor will find ample accommodation with every comfort and civility at the Royal Hotel.'

The stereo photograph can be analysed as a number of constituent parts, the most obvious being the two photographic prints and the card mount. They often had labels pasted on to the front or back with the name of the photographer or the subject of the photograph. Sometimes extensive descriptive information was also provided. Before 1855 stereo photographs seldom bore labels. Although many professional photographers and publishers issued cards bearing their names, unlabelled works were produced by ‘pirate’ copyists as well as by amateurs.

In Russell Sedgfield’s stereo photograph of ‘Nant Mill, North Wales’ he has attached a label describing the location of the image, and also its number in a series, ‘261’. These numbers can be helpful in giving an approximate date of when the image was taken compared with other images in the series. It also provides a clue to how many other photographs may have been taken of similar subjects by the individual photographer. This photograph also bears a blind stamp, ‘Sedgfield’s Welsh Scenery’, on the right of the card. While the blind stamp can sometimes provide a clue to the photographer or publisher of a stereo card some labels have distinctive borders or lettering that can aid identification. One such is the London Stereoscopic Company's late 1850s stereo views on brown card. These often have a distinctive patterned border.

Nant Mill, North Wales

Nant Mill, North Wales, Photographed by Russell Sedgfield, c1860, no. 261, published by Russell Sedgfield. HP82.56.167

The French Tissue

Stereoscopic albumen print (detail from left frame), possibly published by J Elliott. HP82.56.154

The ‘French Tissue’ was a stereo photograph whose card mount was cut away to allow light to pass through the thin albumen print. This enabled the photographer to create a number of special effects. The albumen paper could be hand tinted or backed with a translucent sheet of coloured material and when held up to the light the print appeared to be coloured. This effect could be further enhanced by piercing both pieces of paper with a needle to heighten features such as candles on chandeliers, cutting out the backing paper behind a window, or waxing the image paper to increase its translucency. French Tissues were most popular between 1858 and 1875, and as the name suggests were most commonly produced in France although they were also made in Britain and other countries.

Reference: Darrah, W. C. 1997, The World of Stereographs. Land Yacht Press, Nashville. p. 11

French tissue
French tissue verso

‘French Tissue’ of Interior View, possibly photographed by James Elliott, c1860, possibly published by J. Elliott (The reverse view shows the cut-away mount and the detail above shows the pattern of pinpricks matching the position of candle flames on the chandelier). HP82.56.154

Views in North Wales

Views in North Wales, Scene near Bettsw-Y-Coed, photographer unknown, c1860. HP81.106.321

Colour photographs became commonplace in the mid twentieth century but colour had been an important consideration for photography from its inception. Although both the daguerreotype and Talbot’s negative/positive process were unable to reproduce colour, they were more sensitive to some colours, particularly blue. Indoor studios had blue skylights and sitters were required to dress in colours that would help compensate for problems with the emulsions. This sensitivity to blue posed another problem. Although stereo photographs were especially used for outdoor photography, a clear blue sky often left the top third of a photograph as a blank white space.

Photographers and publishers sometimes compensated for these technical limitations by hand tinting their stereo photographs. The quality of their work varied immensely. Some publishers and photographers hired professional artists to tint their work or had artistic backgrounds themselves. The result was beautifully coloured stereo views.

In other cases the necessity of producing thousands of stereo photographs for sale compromised their quality, while amateurs with little experience or talent could easily undermine their photographic handiwork with a few inept strokes of the brush. The seemingly crude character of some hand tinting was not necessarily due to the incompetence or haste of the artist. Some of the harsh painting of sentimental and comic views was probably a deliberate attempt to heighten the ridiculous effect.

Reference: Darrah, W. C. 1997, The World of Stereographs. Land Yacht Press, Nashville. p. 43

Victorian Family

Victorian Family, Hand-tinted photograph possibly by J Elliott, c1860, HP82.56.143

Cataract Gorge

Cataract Gorge, Launceston, Tasmania, c1858?

Robert Hunt arrived in Sydney in 1854 and the following year took one of Australia’s earliest known outdoor stereoscopic views. His photograph of the parsonage of St. James’ Church in Sydney has the date handwritten on the bottom left of the card. However, writing on original prints can sometimes be misleading. Photographs may have been incorrectly annotated at a later date by the photographer or someone else. For instance a photograph by W.S. Jevons has the date 1860 written on it but Jevons had already left Australia by then. Usually more reliable is information which has been scratched on to the negative either by the photographer or publisher.

St James

St. James' Parsonage, Macquarie Street, Sydney, (View from Mint Building across forecourt of Hyde Park Barracks to Parsonage and Hyde Park). Photographed by Robert Hunt, 1855. HP81.106.260

The stereo photograph mounted on green card was taken in Port Macquarie by Prof. John Smith. The card mounting is atypical in colour and size. The negative was either unusually small or it has been severely cropped to eliminate the dark areas caused by peripheral lens aberration. Most of the known stereo photographs Smith made during the late 1850s and the 1860s were a standard size and generally clear and well defined. Judging by the poor quality of the lens and the odd mounting it seems likely this photograph is an early example of Smith’s work.

Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia

Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Australia, Photographed by Prof. John Smith, c1860. HP81.106.321

W Psreat Publisher, Exeter, England

W Spreat Publisher, Exeter, England, Back of Stereocard, 1860s

Most stereo photographs were distributed commercially by publishing companies. While many collectors have assumed the publisher was also the photographer this was not always the case. Public demand was such that individual stereo photographs could sell in their thousands. This opened the door for entrepreneurs who bought negatives from photographers and then printed and published them, often without crediting the photographer.

In 1854, George Swan Nottage founded one of the biggest photographic publishing houses in Britain, the London Stereoscopic Company. Selling his stereo photographs for 1s each (1s 6d for coloured) he amassed a huge fortune and eventually became Lord Mayor of London in 1884. Smaller publishers and some stereo photographers continued to publish their own photographs, but paid printing establishments to print their photographs for them. These were highly efficient businesses and as early as 1856 Blanquart-Evrard’s printing establishment in France could make 250 prints from one negative in less than two hours.

Reference: Gernsheim, H. 1955, The History of Photography, From the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the 11th Century up to 1914. Oxford University Press, London, 1955. pp.143-144

Cover for the Stereoscopic Set of 20 Views of the Crystal Palace, Sydenham, London

Cover for the Stereoscopic Set of 20 Views of the Crystal Palace, Sydenham, London, Published by Negretti & Zambra for the Crystal Palace Art Union, 1859. HP82.56.21

The huge popularity of the stereo photograph and the albumen printing process placed new demands on the British photographic industry. Until the development of viable mechanical techniques for mass production of photographs, actual photographs had to be made for mounting on cards or pasting into books. Amateurs using Talbot’s negative/positive process found few problems when making prints from their negatives. But it was a different story producing thousands of copies of the same negative. Each stereo print required placing a sensitized piece of paper against a negative and exposing it to sunlight. This meant multiple copies could be made from a negative but only one at a time.

George Washington Wilson’s printing works at St. Swithin’s, Aberdeen, in Scotland, covered half an acre and his racks of negative holders were mounted on tables which were rolled out to be exposed directly to the sunlight when fine, but were wheeled under the glass roof when it rained.

The Palace of Justice, Rouen, France

The Palace of Justice, Rouen, France, Photographer Robert Howlett, c1859, (note the difference between the left and right frames caused by the movement of the single lens camera), published by Lovell Reeve, The Stereoscopic Magazine, May 1860, 140 x 222 mm. HP82.56.177

Some publishers preferred to rely on a smaller clientele who were prepared to pay for quality stereo images. Lovell Reeve was one of these and in 1858 he published the first book illustrated with stereo photographs, Teneriffe: An Astronomer’s Experiment by Piazzi Smyth. Reeve hired James Glaisher, astronomer, balloonist, and later President of the Photographic Society of London to oversee photography. This required contact printing over 40,000 stereo views for the print run of 2000 copies. These were then cut, trimmed, and pasted on to the pre-printed pages.

In 1858 Reeve also published the first magazine illustrated entirely with stereo views, The Stereoscopic Magazine. In this publication Reeve hoped to highlight the value of stereo photographs as educational aids to diffuse “correct knowledge” and cultivate refined taste. The magazine ran till 1865 producing three images with accompanying text in each issue. Reeve sought out some of the best British stereo photographers of the day. He purchased the rights to use their negatives and employed A.J. Melhuish to make prints from them. As a result of the care and attention which went into the selection and printing of its images the Stereoscopic Magazine had a justifiably high reputation for the quality of its photographs.

Cover for set of 20 Stereoscopic Views of Sydney

Cover for set of 20 Stereoscopic Views of Sydney, published by W Hetzer, c1860. HP83.62

Back of Stereoscopic Card

'Interior of Glo'ster catherdral', back of stereoscopic Card, Publishers label George Washington Wilson, c1865.

Back of Stereoscopic Card

'Cromwell's Bridge, Glengariff, near Killarney', back of Stereoscopic Card, Publishers label London Stereoscopic Co., c1860

Back of Stereoscopic Card

Back of Stereoscopic Card, Publishers label H.W. Lamb, c1860

Views in Tasmania

'Views in Tasmania', Back of Stereoscopic Card, Publishers label Samuel Clifford, c1865

Gull Bay, Pleinmont

Gull Bay, Pleinmont, back of stereoscopic card, publishers label S Barbet, c1865

The Palace of the Peak

'The Palace of the Peak', back of stereoscopic card, publishers label S Poulton, 1860-6

Back of Stereoscopic card

Back of Stereoscopic Card, Publishers label J. R. Clarke, c1872. HP82.9.96

Stereo photography in Britain

Students Day, The Graeco-Roman Saloon, The British Museum Photographed by Roger Fenton, 1857. Stereoscopic albumen print, (left frame), published by Lovell Reeve in the Stereoscopic Magazine, January 1860. HP82.56.210

Then, does it appear to me that in this age three things are clamorously required of Man in the miscellaneous thoroughfares of the metropolis. Firstly, that he have his boots cleaned. Secondly, that he eat a penny ice. Thirdly, that he get himself photographed. Then do I speculate, What have those seam-worn artists been who stand at the photograph doors in Greek caps, sample in hand, and mysteriously salute the public - the female public with a pressing tenderness - to come in and be 'took'? What did they do with their greasy blandishments, before the era of cheap photography?
Charles Dickens 1860

3.1 A Slow Start

Throughout the 1840s photography in Britain was constrained by Daguerre’s and Talbot’s patents, expensive chemicals and the technical limitations of both processes. The patents Talbot took out between 1841 and 1851 covered his negative/positive process, the use of certain chemicals, and even the use of photographic reproduction for publications. Unfortunately the British government showed no inclination to purchase Talbot’s patent and issue it free to the public, as had been the case with Daguerre’s patent in France.

Amateurs were given some exemptions from Talbot’s patents and vastly improved his process without claiming patent rights for their discoveries. Unfortunately for some, the pressure to give away their discoveries in the name of science had disastrous results. Frederick Scott Archer, the son of a Hereford butcher, discovered perhaps the most significant improvement to the negative/positive process in this period. This was the wet collodion negative which allowed a highly sensitive photographic emulsion to be fixed to glass. He announced it to the world free of patent in 1851. Six years later he died in poverty aged 44, leaving behind a wife and three children.

Daguerre’s process was initially more popular but it was also more expensive. Daguerreotypists in Britain and her colonies had to purchase a license and costly equipment which limited the number of photographers as well as those who could afford to buy their work. In 1855 Talbot gave up his patents and it is from this date that multiple prints, books containing photographs, and the mass production of photographs had their popular beginnings. The stereo format in particular benefited from the easing of patent restrictions and the more ready availability of cameras and photographic equipment. Many new operators took up stereo photography commercially or as a hobby.

3.2 New Technologies

Vanitas, or the Sands of Time

Vanitas, or the Sands of Time, Stereoscopic daguerreotype, photographed and published by T.R. Williams, c1852, HP84.53.1

Stereo photography gained significant public attention at the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. Operators familiar with the daguerreotype process made some of the first commercial stereo photographs. But the daguerreotype’s popularity was short lived and by the end of the 1850s it had been squeezed out of business by two new photographic processes, the ambrotype and the albumen print.

The ambrotype was a collodion negative on glass backed to give it a positive appearance. Like the daguerreotype, it was a one-off process but could produce portraits more cheaply. Albumen prints were highly detailed and could be printed on paper in large numbers from collodion negatives.

By the end of the 1850s albumen prints were used almost exclusively to make stereo photographs. New publishing companies were formed to print and sell huge numbers of these albumen stereo photographs. Soon after its founding in 1854, the London Stereoscopic Company was producing more than 1,000 stereo prints per day. The Company secured a monopoly to produce stereo photographs of the 1862 London International Exhibition and sold more than 300,000 prints during the six months the Exhibition was open.

3.3 The Importance of Being Amateur

Winter Scene

Winter Scene, Photographer and publisher unknown. HP82.56.46

In the Victorian era many activities were carried on by amateurs in a manner that we would now describe as professional, but for which there were few if any salaried positions. Many of the important scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century were made by amateurs like Charles Darwin. These amateurs, often of independent means, pursued a wide range of interests in the arts and newly developing sciences. Their interests often covered more than one discipline and many contributed articles on a wide variety of topics to specialist clubs and societies. For instance, the amateur photographer John Dillwyn Llewellyn studied botany and astronomy, collected birds, mammals and rare plants, while also being an accomplished watercolour painter.

In photography’s formative years it was amateurs who did most of the experimenting outdoors while professionals remained in their studios. But in the 1850s a new breed of photographers adopted the subjects and styles pioneered by amateurs. Disliking this commercialising of their hobby, many amateurs abandoned photography in the 1860s, leaving future improvements to the professionals.

3.4 Open Air Photography

Cobham Park, Kent

Cobham Park, Kent, Photographer unknown, c1858, Published by Lovell Reeve in The Stereoscopic Magazine October 1858. HP82.56.242

The stereo photographs small size effectively standardized and miniaturized many of the requirements for the positive /negative process. This miniaturization when combined with special lenses of short focal length cut exposure times down and brought to life for the first time instantaneous views of street life, and made almost all outdoor photography easier.

Portraiture continued to be the mainstay of many professional photographers, but stereo photography and its suitability for outdoor views inspired a new breed of photographers to embrace subjects outside the studio. Public demand aided this movement as the purchasers of these photographs sought out images similar to those already popularized in painting and etchings. These included still life, sculpture, architecture, genre groups, but by far the most common was the picturesque landscape view.

The period of the 1850s to the 1870s has been described as the ‘golden age’ of British photography. It produced such photographers as Roger Fenton, Robert Howlett, George Washington Wilson, Francis Bedford, Russell Sedgfield, William England and lesser-known figures like Ernest Edwards, James Elliott, and Poulton & Sons, all of whom made magnificent stereo photographs during this period. By the 1860s amateur and professional stereo photographers had beautifully and comprehensively stereographed Great Britain, a remarkable achievement considering British photography’s slow start in the 1840s.

A Picnic in the Australian Bush

'A Picnic in the Australian Bush' (left frame only), Photographer & publisher unknown, c1868, HP2002.1.2

The most striking characteristics of the views are the brilliancy of the lights, the sharpness of the outlines, and the clearness of the minutest points; thus accurately displaying not only the actual objects, but also the intense transparency of the Australian atmosphere. The remoter parts of the landscape, such as the North Shore and the harbour scenery, with the ships at anchor are remarkably distinct; while the architecture of the houses in Macquarie Street is produced with almost stereoscopic effect.
Sydney Morning Herald, 1 May 1859

4.1 In A New Light

Although the bright sun and clear atmosphere of Australia should have encouraged outdoor photography, commercial photographers found it difficult to sell anything except local portraits. Throughout the 1840s people seemed unwilling to part with the pound it cost for a daguerreotype, unless it was their own or a relative’s face that was etched on to the silver.

Talbot's and Daguerre’s patent restrictions, the unreliability of chemicals and papers which had sat in a ship’s hold for three months, and the small population kept the costs of photography high and the number of photographers low. Because of this almost all known examples of Australian photography from this period are commercial portraits.

In the 1850s British interest in stereo photography, particularly outdoor views, was quickly followed in Australia. During the 1850s, cities and towns boomed and amateurs and professionals set about photographing Australian streetscapes and landscapes, often using the stereo camera so well suited to outdoor work.

Commercial stereo photographers like William Hetzer were often journalistic in their approach and catalogued buildings and streets that typified the expanding colony. Non commercial operators like Robert Hunt aligned themselves with the British amateur tradition concentrating on picturesque stereo views or items of scientific or antiquarian interest. Whatever their interests their stereo photographs remain some of the earliest views of Australian towns and the surrounding countryside.

4.2 Commercial Photographers

George St, Sydney, Australia

George St., Sydney, Possibly photographed by William Hetzer, published by William Hetzer, c1860. HP81.51.1

As early as 1852 D.T. Kilburn was demonstrating stereo photography in Hobart and by 1854 Freeman Brothers were exhibiting examples of stereo daguerreotypes at their George Street studios in Sydney.

Stereo photography became an attractive alternative for commercial operators and although they continued to take portraits, some found there was a market for outdoor stereo photographs as well.

William Hetzer was one of the first to produce a series of stereographic pictures of Sydney and in 1858 he published a set of 36 views, increasing this number to 100 by December 1859. Although Hetzer stopped producing stereo views by 1863, other professionals, such as Samuel Clifford and Alexander Brodie, continued producing them in Melbourne and Tasmania as well as Sydney.

Making money from local stereo photographs remained difficult due to competition from local retailers who by the end of the 1850s were selling large numbers of stereo photographs imported from overseas. In 1859, the publisher J. R. Clarke was offering 3000 stereo views for sale and by 1860 J. Ferguson of George Street, Sydney, claimed to have 20,000 stereo views on offer.

Looking West by South

'Looking West by South, showing [sic]:- Part of Castlereagh and Pitt Streets, back of the Royal Hotel, Waterloo Warehouse and Central Markets George Street, Freemason's Hotel, York Street, part of Darling Harbour, and Pyrmont, In the distance is Johnson's Bay, the Glebe, &c.', Photographed by Alexander Brodie, c1872, published by J.R. Clarke, 1872. HP82.9.17

4.3 Australian Amateurs

Throughout the 1840s a there was a small group of Australian’s who modelled their activities on those of the amateur societies in Britain, particularly in Hobart and Sydney. Yet although photography would have been a great aid in documenting their scientific and artistic interests few appear to have taken up what was sometimes referred to as the ‘Black Art’.

This changed in the 1850s as Australians followed English trends and adopted the collodion process, albumen prints and outdoor stereo photography. By 1859 lectures were being held at the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts to encourage people to become amateur photographers, and detailed accounts of the photographic process were published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Australian amateurs took larger format photographs but many favoured the stereo photograph for its suitability for outdoor work and its ease of use. They photographed their families and friends, at home and on picnics, but they also produced views which reveal their scientific interests and understanding of English picturesque conventions.

In the 1860s amateur photographers in Australia appear to have followed their British counterparts and gave up stereo photography. Even professional interest in it had waned by the late 1870s.

Sandstone Middle Harbour

'Sandstone Middle Harbour, Between Hunters Beach and Shell Cove', Photographed by John Smith, July 1865. HP81.106.324

4.4 Instantaneous Images of George St., Sydney

In the late 1850s and early 1860s William Hetzer sett up his camera to take full advantage of the straight lines and perspective of the street. Using the new collodion glass plates he also experimented with the stereo photograph’s then novel ability to capture instantaneous scenes.

About 1859 Hetzer published a photographic series titled ‘Sydney and Environs’. Two of these were views of George Street from the same viewpoint. One of these captured the hustle and bustle of George Street with people carefully placed along the length of the street talking. It even includes someone on a ladder setting up a shop awning. Yet while all these people maintained their poses the long exposure time of this image has also captured the movement of a person walking across the street. It seems someone spoiled Hetzer’s carefully constructed scene, or did they?

In the second photograph George Street is now deserted. Its lack of action and static nature (except for a slightly blurred figure in the foreground) implies Hetzer may have used this photograph to highlight the instantaneous nature of the first photograph. When we look at the first image closely we can see the street has a number of blurry areas indicating the movement of people. It seems that Hetzer deliberately captured the blurred figure moving across the street while other people maintained static poses. This amplified the sense of action.

George St., Sydney

George St., Sydney, Possibly photographed by William Hetzer, published by William Hetzer, c1860. HP81.51.2

George St., Sydney

George St., Sydney, Possibly photographed by William Hetzer, published by William Hetzer, c1860. HP81.51.3

4.5 Photographing Antiquities

Antiquarian subjects such as ancient monuments, cathedrals, graveyards, castles, and bridges were all popular subjects amongst amateur photographers in England. Their popularity was partly due to the Victorians enthusiasm for the picturesque, which fostered some of these subjects, but amateurs added subjects relevant to their scholarly interests in the sciences and Britain’s past.

Even with a marked lack of ancient buildings Australian amateurs still sought out antiquarian subjects. In Tasmania the misty atmosphere and vegetation was well suited to the English styles of photography. Samuel Clifford’s stereo views of the rock formations at Mt. Wellington and Morton Allport’s studies of tree ferns are similar to those made in Britain.

However, for the most part Australia did not lend itself to romantic nostalgia. Australia’s clear bright atmosphere allowed highly detailed photographers to be taken, rather than misty atmospheric ones. John Sharp’s photograph of the surgeon J. Smith’s bush grave seems to document the hardships of colonial life rather than to romanticise the past.

The Grave of John Smith M.D., Surgeon of the Derwent

'The Grave of John Smith M.D., Surgeon of the Derwent- lost on this mountain 23rd January 1858 and found on this spot on the 28th January 1859,erected as a token of regret for his untimely end.', Photographed by John Mathieson Sharp, 1861. HP82.9.35

While this added to the documentary quality of photographs it also made it difficult to create the atmospheric effects popular in England. Instead of decaying abbeys and castles overrun by nature, Robert Hunt’s photograph of the neo-gothic church at Cobbity highlights its alien shimmer and isolation from the surrounding landscape.

Church Cobbity, New South Wales

'Church Cobbity, New South Wales', Photographed by Robert Hunt, 1864, HP81.106.398

Ross Castle, Glengariff, from the Lower Lake, The Lakes of Killarney, Ireland

'Ross Castle, Glengariff, from the Lower Lake, The Lakes of Killarney, Ireland', Photographer unknown, c1865. HP81.117.125

But cautiously will taste its stores reveal ;
Its greatest art is aptly to conceal ;
To lead, with secret guile, the prying sight
To where component parts may best unite
And form one beauteous, nicely blended whole,
To charm the eye and captivate the soul.

Richard Payne Knight, 1795

5.1 The Picturesque

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the picturesque dominated British artistic circles. Somewhat confusingly it was casually used to describe subjects as varied as trees, a group of mountains, a village square, a medieval ruin, or a river. This casual usage was continued to the point where the general impression of the word today is one of images possessing pleasing and interesting qualities of form and colour but not achieving the heights of beauty or art. This belies the fact that the picturesque was an important indicator of changes in European approaches to landscape.

Rather than relying on classical or religious subjects, the picturesque encouraged artists to study the details of a particular place. Artists initially selected details from different locations on their canvasses to construct the perfect view. By the beginning of the nineteenth century theorists began to argue that it was possible for a picturesque view to exist in nature that did not need its elements rearranged by the artist. This gave photographers well versed in the principles of the picturesque an opportunity to fix a perfect scene on photographic paper.

Some of the best photographers, such as Roger Fenton, Russell Sedgfield, William England and George Washington Wilson, showed immense skill in just this style of composition when constructing their stereo photographs.

Tintern Abbey, part of the nave arcade

'Tintern Abbey, part of the nave arcade', Sedgfields English Scenery, no. 401, Photographed by Russell Sedgfield, published by Russell Sedgfield, c1860. HP81.51.1

The Baptistry, Canterbury, England

'The Baptistry, Canterbury, England', Photographed by Roger Fenton, c1858, published by Lovell Reeve in The Stereoscopic Magazine, March 1859. HP82.56.285

5.2 Pont Aberglaslyn, Wales

William Gilpin, in his book Observations on the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland, first published in 1786, identified eight discernable elements in the construction of the picturesque image: mountains, lakes, broken ground, woods, rocks, cascades, valleys and rivers. All these elements can be found in the stereo photograph of Pont Aberglaslyn, Wales. Here the mountain occupies the middle distance with only its base visible, while the line it traces with the sky is suitably irregular and its surface is tinted with foliage. Broken ground abounds in almost every shape from the ivy-covered bridge and tree-covered hills to the rapids flowing under the bridge.

The horizontal aspects of the composition are broken by irregular lines which lead the eye into the picture while the nearly horizontal lines of the man-made bridge and the end of the rapids draw attention to the centre of the composition. Vertical lines are spaced in a series of receding motifs from the foliage in the foreground to the bare trunks of the pine trees in the distance. This also enhances the stereo effect. The man on the bridge has been cleverly placed at the very centre of the composition and yet the slight offsetting of the arch of the bridge mutes his presence.

The whole composition adheres to Gilpin’s demand that ‘in every representation, truly picturesque, the shade should greatly overbalance the light’, while also conveying the best aspects of beauty contrasted with the sublime by placing the placid water of the foreground in the lap of the mountain behind it.

Pont Aberglaslyn, Wales

'Pont Aberglaslyn, Wales' (right frame only), Photographer unknown, c1859, published by Lovell Reeve in The Stereoscopic Magazine, October 1859. HP82.56.239

5.3 Willoughby Falls, New South Wales

In Australia the clarity of the light, its ancient geology and radically different vegetation and scenery were no deterrent for lovers of the picturesque who had emigrated from England. Australian stereo photographers, like those in Britain, concentrated on outdoor photography and some were remarkably successful in endeavours to create photographs in the picturesque style.

Hunt’s photograph of Willoughby Falls is a good example of Australian photographers using picturesque conventions. The cliff is seen through foliage which obscures but adds interest to its surface, as does the cascade of water. William Gilpin believed that it was in the foreground that errors become apparent and these are perhaps more easily disguised by distance. He felt the foreground had to overcome a contradiction in which force and richness were also to contain breadth and repose. To address this problem Hunt weighted the foreground with fractured stone. These richly detailed rocks add force to the composition but their solidity and size also provide a sense of repose. Picturesque interest in the foreground of compositions was helpful for stereo photographers. They found it not only helped to lead the eye into the composition but also enhanced its three-dimensional effect. In Hunt’s stereo photograph the leading lines zigzag towards the cliff and the lightness of the waterfall.

Willoughby Falls, Sydney, New South Wales

'Willoughby Falls, Sydney, New South Wales' (left frame only), photographed by Robert Hunt, 1860. HP81.106.267

Photographers A-Z

British Stereo Photographers and publishers

Francis Bedford

Francis Bedford
Bedford took up photography around 1853 and in 1854 he photographed the objects in Queen Victoria's collections. Bedford travelled around Britain taking landscapes but worked as a lithographer until 1858 when he devoted himself to photography.

Ernest Edwards

Ernest Edwards
As well as being an excellent photographer Edwards was one of the nineteenth century's best known printers and made high quality art books. He patented a modification of the collotype printing process called the Heliotype around 1867.

William England

William England
William England worked for a daguerreotype studio form 1840 to 1845. In 1854 he was he started work for the London Stereoscopic Co. and produced at least three magnificent series of photographs for them. The first was taken in the U.S.A. in 1859, the second in Paris in 1860 and 1861, and the third was of the 1862 International Exhibition. He left The London Stereoscopic Company in 1863.

Roger Fenton

Roger Fenton
Roger Fenton was one of the most famous photographers of the nineteenth century. In June 1852 he took stereo photographs for Sir Charles Wheatstone and later that year started commercial work photographing antiquities for the British Museum. He took some of the earliest documentary photographs of war during his visit to the Crimea in 1855. In 1862 he sold all of his equipment and returned to his law practice.

Robert Howlett

Robert Howlett
In 1856 Howlett was running his own photographic studio and produced a series of portraits of soldiers from the Crimean War. Howlett took landscape and architectural views but is perhaps best known for his photographs of Isambard Kingdom Brunel and his huge steamship the Great Eastern.

London Stereoscopic Company

London Stereoscopic Company
In 1854 George Swan Nottage (1823-85) started what was to become one of the largest photographic publishing companies in the world. While based in London by the 1860s the company had branches around the world in cities like New York and Sydney. By 1884 Nottage had amassed a huge fortune and was elected Mayor of London.

Lovell Reeve

Lovell Reeve
Lovell Reeve was born in 1814 at Ludgate Hill. He started his working life as grocers apprentice at the age of 13. In 1848 he left his partnership selling natural history specimens to concentrate on publishing. In 1858 he published the first book illustrated with stereo photographs, Tenneriffe: an Astronomers Experiment by Piazzi Smyth. In 1858 he also published The Stereoscopic Magazine which contained images from some of the better-known British photographers of the time including; Roger Fenton, Ernest Edwards, Robert Howlett, H. Taylor.
More biographical Info: Stereoscopic Magazine Complete Listing

Negretti and Zambra

Negretti & Zambra
Henry Negretti (1817-1879) and Joseph Warren Zambra (d. 1877) were in partnership from 1850 and sold a variety of scientific instruments. In the late 1850s they had expanded their business to include the publication of stereo photographs and by 1879 they were one of Britain's largest photographic publishing companies.

William Russel Sedgfield

William Russell Sedgfield
Sedgfield produced more than 1000 beautiful stereo views of titled English Scenery between 1855 and 1866. These were published by A. W. Bennett and sold tinted or un-tinted. In 1860 he produced a natural history series of shell arrangements.

George Washington Wilson

George Washington Wilson
In the 1840s George Washington Wilson trained as a portrait miniaturist before becoming an "artist and photographer" in Aberdeen in the 1850s. In 1857 his photographs of the crowded pier at Greenwich and the firing of guns from Royal Navy ships were credited with being the first to capture instantaneous action. By the late 1870s the company had become one of the best-known photographic and printing firms in Britain.

Australian Stereo photographers

Alexander Brodie

Alexander Brodie
Between 1867 and 1891 Brodie worked in Sydney taking landscape views in a variety of formats. Turner & Henderson reissued Brodie's stereos as single images in a publication titled Album of Views of New South Wales, in 1872.

Jacob Richard Clarke

Jacob Richard Clarke
A music publisher and retailer of books Clarke also published A. Brodie's stereoviews. In the 1860s he was selling local and imported stereoscopic slides at a shilling each or a dozen for 10 shilllings.

Samuel Clifford

Samuel Clifford
Clifford arrived in Hobart in 1848. In 1861 he was selling his stereoscopic views from his grocers shop along with photographic equipment. In 1865 he advertised that he had 700 stereo views of Tasmania on sale. He was a member of the Stereoscopic Exchange Club and had finished most of his photographic work by 1873.

William Hetzer

William Hetzer
Hetzer arrived in Sydney in 1850. In the same year he became a member of the Australian Artists Society and in 1859 exhibited stereo works at an exhibition held by the Philosophical Society of New South Wales. He seems to been an early practitioner of the calotype but he is best known for the stereoscopic views of Sydney he published between 1858-1863. In 1867 Hetzer left Australia and sold his studio equipment and nearly 3,500 registered negatives at auction to Joseph Degotardi.

Robert Hunt

Robert Hunt
Hunt arrived in Sydney in 1854, to take up a position as first clerk at the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint. He was a keen amateur photographer and took photographs with other mint employees and John Smith in the late 1850s and early 1860s. Hunt was still taking stereo photographs in the 1880s.

William Stanley Jevons

William Stanley Jevons
Jevons came to Sydney in 1854 to work as an assayer at the Sydney branch of the Royal Mint. Jevons used the wet collodion process to take photographs of the Sydney Mint and Sydney harbour with his friends Robert Hunt and John Smith. He left Australia in April 1859 and was later professor of political economy at University College London.

Matthew Fortesque Moresby

Matthew Fortesque Moresby
Before he moved to Sydney Moresby worked as secretary to his father Admiral Sir. Fairfax Moresby. Matthew painted watercolours of ships but possibly learned photography in the late 1850s from his friend E. W. Ward. Their flagship was the HMS Iris and Matthew Moresby took two stereo views of it c. 1858-1859 which are now in the Macleay photographic collection.

Alfred Morris

Alfred Morris
Morris & Co. works were exhibited at the 1873 London International Exhibition. Most of their work was produced in Melbourne and Tasmania between 1864 and the 1870s.

Professor John Smith

Professor John Smith
John Smith came to Sydney in 1852 to take up the position of professor of Chemistry and Experimental Physics at the University of Sydney. He was a keen amateur photographer and took many stereo views of the University of Sydney as well as portraits of wealthy Sydney families.

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Geoff Barker, Historic Photograph Collection
Text: All text except Origins of Stereo Photography, Web Design, scanning, animation

Julian Holland, Scientific Instrument Collection
Text: Origins of Stereo Photography

Virginia Buckingham
Title graphic


Firstly we would like to thank T.K. Treadwell at the Institute for Photographic Research, U.S.A. who has provided help and support for the exhibition since first contacted in 1999.

We would also like to thank the many people who contributed their knowledge and resources to the exhibition including: Matthew Alderdice, Lara Baldvinsdottir, National Museum, Iceland, Gordon Baldwin, The Getty, Martin Barnes, Victoria & Albert Museum, Ron Blum, Marianne Czolij, Macleay Museum, Alan Davies, State Library of New South Wales, Susie Davies, Macleay Museum, Peter Emmett, Andrew Eskind, George Eastman House Telnet Archive, Mark Haworth-Booth, Victoria & Albert Museum, John Hodgson, Rylands University Library of Manchester, Ian Hoskins, Powehouse Museum, Ken Jacobson, Ian Leith, English Heritage, National Monuments Record, Gráinne MacLochlainn, National Photographic Archive, Dublin, Paul Messier, Albumen Works, Bob Moran, Precision Dynamics, Kate Pickard, Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, Dr. Larry J. Schaaf, John Sullivan, Alexander Turnbill Library, Roger Taylor, Del Zogg, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston