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http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/185906/holmes
– from the newly-free Atlantic Monthly Archive

“Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible
object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which
form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken
from different points of view, and that is all we want of it”

The Stereoscope and the Stereograph
by Oliver Wendell Holmes  / June 1859

DEMOCRITIUS of Abdera, commonly known as the Laughing Philosopher,
probably because he did not consider the study of truth inconsistent
with a cheerful countenance, believed and taught that all bodies were
continually throwing off certain images like themselves, which subtile
emanations, striking on our bodily organs, gave rise to our
sensations. Epicurus borrowed the idea from him, and incorporated it
into the famous system, of which Lueretius has given us the most
popular version. Those who are curious on the matter will find the
poet’s description at the beginning of his fourth book. Forms,
effigies, membranes, or films, are the nearest representatives of the
terms applied to these effluences. They are perpetually shed from the
surfaces of solids, as bark is shed by trees. Cortex is, indeed, one
of the names applied to them by Lucretius.

These evanescent films may be seen in one of their aspects in any
clear, calm sheet of water, in a mirror, in the eye of an animal by
one who looks at it in front, but better still by the consciousness
behind the eye in the ordinary act of vision. They must be packed like
the leaves of a closed book; for suppose a mirror to give an image of
an object a mile off, it will give one at every point less than a
mile, though this were subdivided into a million parts. Yet the images
will not be the same; for the one taken a mile off will be very small,
at half a mile as large again, at a hundred feet fifty times as large,
and so on, as long as the mirror can contain the image.

Under the action of light, then, a body makes its superficial aspect
potentially present at a distance, becoming appreciable as a shadow or
as a picture. But remove the cause,–the body itself–and the effect is
removed. The man beholdeth himself in the glass and goeth his way, and
straightway both the mirror and the mirrored forget what manner of man
he was. These visible films or membranous exurse of objects, which the
old philosophers talked about, have no real existence, separable from
their illuminated source, and perish instantly when it is withdrawn.

If a man had handed a metallic speculum to Democritus of Abdera, and
told him to look at his face in it while his heart was beating thirty
or forty times, promising that one of the films his face was shedding
should stick there, so that neither he, nor it, nor anybody should
forget what manner of man he was, the Laughing Philosopher would
probably have vindicated his claim to his title by an explosion that
would have astonished the speaker.

This is just what the Daguerreotype has done. It has fixed the most
fleeting of our illusions, that which the apostle and the philosopher
and the poet have alike used as the type of instability and unreality.
The photograph has completed the triumph, by making a sheet of paper
reflect images like a mirror and hold them as a picture.

This triumph of human ingenuity is the most audacious, remote,
improbable, incredible,–the one that would seem least likely to be
regained, if all traces of it were lost, of all the discoveries man
has made. It has become such an everyday matter with us, that we
forget its miraculous nature, as we forget that of the sun itself, to
which we owe the creations of our new art. Yet in all the prophecies
of dreaming enthusiasts, in all the random guesses of the future
conquests over matter, we do not remember any prediction of such an
inconceivable wonder, as our neighbor round the corner, or the
proprietor of the small house on wheels, standing on the village
common, will furnish any of us for the most painfully slender
remuneration. No Century of Inventions includes this among its
possibilities. Nothing but the vision of a Laputan, who passed his
days in extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, Could have reached such
a height of delirium as to rave about the time when a man should paint
his miniature by looking at a blank tablet, and a multitudinous
wilderness of forest foliage or an endless Babel of roofs and spires
stamp itself, in a moment, so faithfully and so minutely, that one may
creep over the surface of the picture with his microscope and find
every leaf perfect, or read the letters of distant signs, and see what
was the play at the “Variétés” or the “Victoria,” on the evening of
the day when it was taken, just as he would sweep the real view with a
spy-glass to explore all that it contains.

Some years ago, we sent a page or two to one of the magazines,–the
“Knickerbocker,” if we remember aright,–in which the story was told
from the “Arabian Nights,” of the three kings’ sons, who each wished
to obtain the hand of a lovely princess, and received for answer, that
he who brought home the most wonderful object should obtain the lady’s
hand as his reward. Our readers, doubtless, remember the original
tale, with the flying carpet, the tube which showed what a distant
friend was doing by looking into it, and the apple which gave relief
to the most desperate sufferings only by inhalation of its fragrance.
The railroad-car, the telegraph, and the apple-flavored chloroform
could and do realize, every day,–as was stated in the passage reforred
to, with a certain rhetorical amplitude not doubtfully suggestive of
the lecture-room,–all that was fabled to have been done by the carpet,
the tube, and the fruit of the Arabian story.

All these inventions force themselves upon us to the full extent of
their significance. It is therefore hardly necessary to waste any
considerable amount of rhetoric upon wonders that are so thoroughly
appreciated. When human art says to each one of us, I will give you
ears that can hear a whisper in New Orleans, and legs that can walk
six hundred miles in a day, and if, in consequence of any defect of
rail or carriage, you should be so injured that your own very
insignificant walking members must be taken off, I can make the
surgeon’s visit a pleasant dream for you, on awaking from which you
will ask when he is coming to do that which he has done already,–what
is the use of poetical or rhetorical amplification? But this other
invention of the mirror with a memory, and especially that application
of it which has given us the wonders of the stereoscope, is not so
easily, completely, universally recognized in all the immensity of its
applications and suggestions. The stereoscope, and the pictures it
gives, are, however, common enough to be in the hands of many of our
readers; and as many of those who are not acquainted with it must
before long become as familiar with it as they are now with friction-
matches, we feel sure that a few pages relating to it will not be
unacceptable.

Our readers may like to know the outlines of the process of making
daguerreotypes and photographs, as just furnished us by Mr. Whipple,
one of the most successful operators in this country. We omit many of
those details which are everything to the practical artist, but
nothing to the general reader. We must premise, that certain
substances undergo chemical alterations, when exposed to the light,
which produce a change of color. Some of the compounds of silver
possess this faculty to a remarkable degree,–as the common indelible
marking-ink, (a solution of nitrate of silver,) which soon darkens in
the light, shows us every day. This is only one of the innumerable
illustrations of the varied effects of light on color. A living plant
owes its brilliant hues to the sunshine; but a dead one, or the tints
extracted from it, will fade in the same rays which clothe the tulip
in crimson and gold,–as our lady-readers who have rich curtains in
their drawing-rooms know full well. The sun, then, is a master of
chiaroscuro, and, if he has a living petal for his pallet, is the
first of colorists.–Let us walk into his studio, and examine some of
his painting machinery.

1. THE DAGUERREOTYPE–A silver-plated sheet of copper is resilvered by
electro-plating, and perfectly polished. It is then exposed in a glass
box to the vapor of iodine until its surface turns to a golden yellow.
Then it is exposed in another box to the fumes of the bromide of lime
until it becomes of a blood-red tint. Then it is exposed once more,
for a few seconds, to the vapor of iodine. The plate is now sensitive
to light, and is of course kept from it, until, having been placed in
the darkened camera, the screen is withdrawn and the camera-picture
falls upon it. In strong light, and with the best instruments, three
seconds’ exposure is enough; but the time varies with
circumstances. The plate is now withdrawn and exposed to the vapor of
mercury at 212 degrees. Where the daylight was strongest, the
sensitive coating of the plate has undertgone such a chemical change,
that the mercury penetrates readily to the silver, producing a minute
white granular deposit upon it, like a very thin fall of snow, drifted
by the wind. The strong lights are little heaps of these granules, the
middle lights thinner sheets of them; the shades are formed by the
dark silver itself thinly sprinkled only, as the earth shows with a
few scattered snow-flakes on its surface. The precise chemical nature
of these granules we care less for than their palpable presence, which
may be perfectly made out by a microscope magnifying fifty diameters
or even less.

The picture thus formed would soon fade under the action of light, in
consequence of further changes in the chemical elements of the film of
which it consists. Some of these elements are therefore removed by
washing it with a solution of hyposulphite of soda, after which it is
rinsed with pure water. It is now permanent in the light, but a touch
wipes off the picture as it does the bloom from a plum. To fix it, a
solution of hyposulphite of soda containing chloride of gold is poured
on the plate while this is held over a spirit-lamp. It is then again
rinsed with pure water, and is ready for its frame.

2. THE PHOTOGRAPH–Just as we must have a mould before we can make a
cast, we must get a negative or reversed picture on glass before we
can get our positive or natural picture. The first thing, then, is to
lay a sensitive coating on a piece of glass,–crown-glass, which has a
natural surface, being preferable to plate-glass. Collodion, which is
a solution of gun-cotton in alcohol and ether, mingled with a solution
of iodide and bromide of potassium, is used to form a thin coating
over the glass. Before the plate is dry, it is dipped into a solution
of nitrate of silver, where it remains from one to three or four
minutes. Here, then, we have essentially the same chemical elements
that we have seen employed in the daguerreotype,–namely, iodine,
bromine, and silver; and by their mutual reactions in the last process
we have formed the sensitive iodide and bromide of silver. The glass
is now placed, still wet, in the camera, and there remains from three
seconds to one or two minutes, according to circumstances. It is then
washed with a solution of sulphate of iron. Every light spot in the
camera-picture becomes dark on the sensitive coating of the glass-
plate. But where the shadows or dark parts of the camera-picture fall,
the sensitive coating is less darkened, or not at all, if the shadows
are very deep, and so these shadows of the camera-picture become the
lights of the glass-picture, as the lights become the shadows. Again,
the picture is reversed, just as in every camera-obscura wher”e the
image is received on a screen direct from the lens. Thus the glass
plate has the right part of the object on the left side of its
picture, and the left part on its right side ; its light is darkness,
and its darkness is light. Everything is just as wrong as it can be,
except that the relations of each wrong to the other wrongs are like
the relations of the corresponding rights to each other in the
original natural image. This is a negative picture.

Extremes meet. Every given point of the picture is as far from truth
as a lie can be. But in travelling away from the pattern it has gone
round a complete circle, and is at once as remote from Nature and as
near it as possible. “How far is it to Taunton?” said a countryman,
who was walking exactly the wrong way to reach that commercial and
piscatory centre.” ‘Baout twenty-five thaousan’ mild,”–said the boy he
asked,–“‘f y’ go ‘z y’ ‘r’ goin’ naow, ‘n’ ‘baout haaf a mild ‘f y’
turn right raoun’ ‘n’ go t’other way.”

The negative picture being formed, it is washed with a solution of
hyposulphite of soda, to remove the soluble principles which are
liable to decomposition, and then coated with shellac varnish to
protect it.

This negative is now to give birth to a positive,–this mass of
contradictions to assert its hidden truth in a perfect harmonious
affirmation of the realities of Nature. Behold the process!

A sheet of the vest linen paper is dipped in salt water and suffered
to dry. Then a solution of nitrate of silver is poured over it and it
is dried in a dark place. This paper is now sensitive; it has a
conscience, and is afraid of daylight. Press it against the glass
negative and lay them in the sun, the glass uppermost leaving them so
for from three to ten minutes. The paper, having the picture formed on
it, is then washed with the solution of hyposulphite of soda, rinsed
in pure water, soaked again in a solution of hyposulphite of soda, to
which, however, the chloride of gold has been added, and again rinsed.
It is then sized or varnished.

Out of the perverse and totally depraved negative,–where it might
almost seem as if some magic and diabolic power had wrenched all
things from their proprieties, where the light of the eye was
darkness, and the deepest blackness was gilded with the brightest
glare,–is to come the true end of all this series of operations, a
copy of Nature in all her sweet gradations and harmonies and
contrasts.

We owe the suggestion to a great wit, who overflowed our small
intellectual home-lot with a rushing freshet of fertilizing talk the
other day,–one of our friends, who quarries thought on his own
premises, but does not care to build his blocks into hooks and essays,–
that perhaps this world is only the negative of that better one in
which lights will be turned to shadows and shadows into light, but all
harmonized, so that we shall see why these ugly patches, these
misplaced gleams and blots, were wrought into the temporary
arrangements of our planetary life.

For, ho! when the sensitive paper is laid in the sun under the
negative glass, every dark spot on the glass arrests a sunbeam, and so
the spot of the paper lying beneath remains unchanged; but every light
space of the negative lets the sunlight through, and the sensitive
paper beneath confesses its weakness, and betrays it by growing dark
just in proportion to the glare that strikes upon it. So, too, we have
only to turn the glass before laying it on the paper, and we bring all
the natural relations of the object delineated back again,‐its
right to the right of the picture, its left to the picture’s left.

On examining the glass negative by transmitted light with a power of a
hundred diameters, we observe minute granules, whether crystalline or
not we cannot say, very similar to those described in the account of
the daguerreotype. But now their effect is reversed. Being opaque,
they darken the glass wherever they are accumulated, just as the snow
darkens our skylights. Where these particles are drifted, therefore,
we have our shadows, and where they are thinly scattered, our lights.
On examining the paper photographs, we have found no distinct
granules, but diffused stains of deeper or lighter shades.

Such is the sun-picture, in the form in which we now most commonly
meet it,–for the daguerreotype, perfect and cheap as it is, and
admirably adapted for miniatures, has almost disappeared from the
field of landscape, still life, architecture, and genre painting, to
make room for the photograph. Mr. Whipple tells us that even now he
takes a much greater number of miniature portraits on metal than on
paper; and yet, except occasionally a statue, it is rare to see
anything besides a portrait shown in a daguerreotype. But the greatest
number of sun-pictures we see are the photographs which are intended
to be looked at with the aid of the instrument we are next to
describe, and to the stimulus of which the recent vast extension of
photographic copies of Nature and Art is mainly owing.

3. THE STEREOSCOPE.–This instrument was invented by Professor
Wheatstone, and first described by him in 1838. It was only a year
after this that M. Daguerre made known his discovery in Paris; and
almost at the same time Mr. Fox Talbot sent his communication to the
Royal Society, giving an account of his method of obtaining pictures
on paper by the action of light. Iodine was discovered in 1811,
bromine in 1826, chloroform in 1831, gun-cotton, from which coilodion
is made, in 1846, the electro-plating process about the same time with
photography ; “all things,great and small, working together to produce
what seemed at first as delightful, but as fabulous, as Aladdin’s
ring, which is now as little sugggestive of surprise as our daily
bread.”

A stereoscope is an instrument which makes surfaces look solid. All
pictures in which perspective and light and shade are properly
managed, have more or less of the effect of solidity; but by this
instrument that effect is so heightened as to produce an appearance of
reality which cheats the senses with its seeming truth.

There is good reason to believe that the appreciation of solidity by
the eye is purely a matter of education. The famous case of a young
man who underwent the operation of couching for cataract, related by
Cheselden, and a similar one reported in the Appendix to Miiller’s
Physiology, go to prove that everything is seen only as a superficial
extension, until the other senses have taught the eye to recognize
depth, or the third dimension, which gives solidity, by converging
outlines, distribution of light and shade, change of size, and of the
texture of surfaces. Cheselden’s patient thought “all objects whatever
touched his eyes, as what he felt did his skin.” The patient whose
case is reported by Muller could not tell the form of a cube held
obliquely before his eye from that of a flat piece of pasteboard
presenting the same outline. Each of these patients saw only with one
eye,–the other being destroyed, in one case, and not restored to sight
until long after the first, in the other case. In two months’ time
Cheselden’s patient had learned to know solids; in fact, he argued so
logically from light and shade and perspective that he felt of
pictures, expecting to find reliefs and depressions, and was surprised
to discover that they were flat surfaces. If these patients had
suddenly recovered the sight of both eyes, they would probahly have
learned to recognize solids more easily and speedily.

We can commonly tell whether an object is solid, readily enough with
one eye, but still better with two eyes, and sometimes only by using
both. If we look at a square piece of ivory with one eye alone, we
cannot tell whether it is a scale of veneer, or the side of a cube, or
the base of a pyramid, or the end of a prism. But if we now open the
other eye, we shall see one or more of its sides, if it have any, and
then know it to be a solid, and what kind of a solid.

We see something with the second eye which we did not see with the
first; in other words, the two eyes see different pictures of the same
thing, for the obvious reason that they look from points two or three
inches apart. By means of these two different views of an object, the
mind, as it were, feels round it and gets an idea of its solidity. We
clasp an object with our eyes, as with our arms, or with our hands, or
with our thumb and finger, and then we know it to be something more
than a surface. This, of course, is an illustration of the fact,
rather than an explanation of its mechanism.

Though, as we have seen, the two eyes look on two different pictures,
we perceive but one picture. The two have run together and become
blended in a third, which shows us everything we see in each. But, in
order that they should so run together, both the eye and the brain
must be in a natural state. Push one eye a little inward with the
forefinger, and the image is doubled, or at least confused. Only
certain parts of the two retina work harmoniously together, and you
have disturbed their natural relations. Again, take two or three
glasses more than temperance permits, and you see double; the eyes are
right enough, probably, but the brain is in trouble, and does not
report their telegraphic messages correctly. These exceptions
illustrate the every-day truth, that, when we are in right condition,
our two eyes see two somewhat different pictures, which our perception
combines to form one picture, representing objects in all their
dimensions, and not merely as surfaces.

Now, if we can get two artificial pictures of any given object, one as
we should see it with the right eye, the other as we should see it
with the left eye, and then, looking at the right picture, and that
only, with the right eye, and at the left picture, and that only, with
the left eye, contrive some way of making these pictures run together
as we have seen our two views of a natural object do, we shall get the
sense of solidity that natural objects give us. The arrangement which
effects it will be a stereoscope, according to our definition of that
instrument. How shall we attain these two ends?

1. An artist can draw an object as he sees it, looking at it only with
his right eye. Then be can draw a second view of the same object as he
sees it with his left eye. It will not be hard to draw a cube or an
octahedron in this way; indeed, the first stereoscopic figures were
pairs of outlines, right and left, of solid bodies, thus drawn. But
the minute details of a portrait, a group, or a landscape, all so
nearly alike to the two eyes, yet not identical in each picture of our
natural double view, would defy any human skill to reproduce them
exactly. And just here comes in the photograph to meet the difficulty.
A first picture of an object is taken,–then the instrument is moved a
couple of inches or a little more, the distance between the human
eyes, and a second picture is taken. Better than this, two pictures
are taken at once in a double camera.

We were just now stereographed, ourselves, at a moment’s warning, as
if we were fugitives from justice. A skeleton shape, of about a man’s
height, its head covered with a black veil, glided across the floor,
faced us, lifted its veil, and took a preliminary look. When we had
grown sufficiently rigid in our attitude of studied ease, and got our
umbrella into a position of thoughtful carelessness, and put our
features with much effort into an unconstrained aspect of cheerfulness
tempered with dignity, of manly firmness blended with womanly
sensibility, of courtesy, as much as to imply,–“You honor me, Sir,”
toned or sized, as one may say, with something of the self-assertion
of a human soul which reflects proudly, “I am superior to all this,”–
when, I say, we were all right, the spectral Mokanna dropped his long
veil, and his waiting-slave put a sensitive tablet under its folds.
The veil was then again lifted, and the two great glassy eyes stared
at us once more for some thirty seconds. The veil then dropped again;
but in the mean time, the shrouded sorcerer had stolen our double
image; we were immortal. Posterity might thenceforth inspect us, (if
not otherwise engaged,) not as a surface only, but in all our
dimensions as an undisputed solid man of Boston.

2. We have now obtained the doubleeyed or twin pictures, or
STEREOGRAPH, if we may coin a name. But the pictures are two, and we
want to slide them into each other, so to speak, as in natural vision,
that we may see them as one. How shall we make one picture out of two,
the corresponding parts of which are separated by a distance of two or
three inches?

We can do this in two ways. First, by squinting as we look at them.
But this is tedious, painful, and to some impossible, or at least very
difficult. We shall find it much easier to look through a couple of
glasses that squint tbr us. If at the same time they magnify the two
pictures, we gain just so much in the distinctness of the picture,
which, if the figures on the slide are small, is a great advantage.
One of the easiest ways of accomplishing this double purpose is to cut
a convex lens through the middle, grind the curves of the two halves
down to straight lines, and join them by their thin edges. This is a
squinting magnifier, and if arranged so that with its right half we
see the right picture on the slide, and with its left half the left
picture, it squints them both inward so that they run together and
form a single picture.

Such are the stereoscope and the photograph, by the aid of which form
is henceforth to make itself seen through the world of intelligence,
as thought has long made itself heard by means of the art of printing.
The morphotype, or form-print, must hereafter take its place by the
side of the logotype or word-print. The stereograph, as we have called
the double picture designed for the stereoscope, is to be the card of
introduction to make all mankind acquaintances.

The first effect of looking at a good photograph through the
stereoscope is a surprise such as no painting ever produced. The mind
feels its way into the very depths of the picture. The scraggy
branches of a tree in the foreground run out at us as if they would
scratch our eyes out. The elbow of a figure stands forth so as to make
us almost uncomfortable. Then there is such a frightful amount of
detail, that we have the same sense of infinite complexity which
Nature gives us. A painter shows us masses; the stereoscopic figure
spares us nothing–all must be there, every stick, straw, scratch, as
faithfully as the dome of St. Peter’s, or the summit of Mont Blanc, or
the ever-moving stillness of Niagara. The sun is no respecter of
persons or of things.

This is one infinite charm of the photographic delineation.
Theoretically, a perfect photograph is absolutely inexhaustible. In a
picture you can find nothing which the artist has not seen before you;
but in a perfect photograph there will be as many beauties lurking,
unobserved, as there are flowers that blush unseen in forests and
meadows. It is a mistake to suppose one knows a stereoscopic picture
when he has studied it a hundred times by the aid of the best of our
common instruments. Do we know all that there is in a landscape by
looking out at it from our parlor-windows? In one of the glass
stereoscopic views of Table Rock, two figures, so minute as to be mere
objects of comparison with the surrounding vastness, may be seen
standing side by side. Look at the two faces with a strong magnifier,
and you could identify their owners, if you met them in a court of
law.

Many persons suppose that they are looking on miniatures of the
objects represented, when they see them in the stereoscope. They will
be surprised to be told that they see most objects as large as they
appear in Nature. A few simple experiments will show how what we see
in ordinary vision is modified in our perceptions by what we think we
see. We made a sham stereoscope, the other day, with no glasses, and
an opening in the place where the pictures belong, about the size of
one of the common stereoscopic pictures. Through this we got a very
ample view of the town of Cambridge, including Mount Auburn and the
Colleges, in a single field of vision. We do not recognize how minute
distant objects really look to us, without something to bring the fact
home to our conceptions. A man does not deceive us as to his real size
when we see him at the distance of the length of Cambridge Bridge. But
hold a common black pin before the eyes at the distance of distinct
vision, and one-twentieth of its length, nearest the point, is enough
to cover him so that he cannot be seen. The head of the same pin will
cover one of the Cambridge horse-cars at the same distance, and
conceal the tower of Mount Auburn, as seen from Boston.

We are near enough to an edifice to see it well, when we can easily
read an inscription upon it. The stereoscopic views of the arches of
Constantine and of Titus give not only every letter of the old
inscriptions, but render the grain of the stone itself. On the
pediment of the Pantheon may be read, not only the words traced by
Agrippa, but a rough inscription above it, scratched or hacked into
the stone by some wanton hand during an insurrectionary tumult.

This distinctness of the lesser details of a building or a landscape
often gives us incidental truths which interest us more than the
central object of the picture. Here is Alloway Kirk, in the churchyard
of which you may read a real story by the side of the ruin that tells
of more romantic fiction. There stands the stone “Erected by James
Russell, seedsman, Ayr, in memory of his children,”–three little boys,
James, and Thomas, and John, all snatched away from him in the space
of three successive summer-days, and lying under the matted grass in
the shadow of the old witch-haunted walls. It was Burns’s Alloway Kirk
we paid for, and we find we have bought a share in the griefs of James
Russell, seedsman; for is not the stone that tells this blinding
sorrow of real life the true centre of the picture, and not the
roofless pile which reminds us of an idle legend?

We have often found these incidental glimpses of life and death
running away with us from the main object the picture was meant to
delineate. The more evidently accidental their introduction, the more
trivial they are in themselves, the more they take hold of the
imagination. It is common to find an object in one of the twin
pictures which we miss in the other; the person or the vehicle having
moved in the interval of taking the two photographs. There is before
us a view of the Pool of David at Hebron, in which a shadowy figure
appears at the water’s edge, in the right-hand farther corner of the
right-hand picture only. This muffled shape stealing silently into the
solemn scene has already written a hundred biographies in our
imagination. In the lovely glass stereograph of the Lake of Brienz, on
the left-hand side, a vaguely hinted female figure stands by the
margin of the fair water; on the other side of the picture she is not
seen. This is life; we seem to see her come and go. All the longings,
passions, experiences, possibilities of womanhood animate that gliding
shadow which has flitted through our consciousness, nameless,
dateless, featureless, yet more profoundly real than the sharpest of
portraits traced by a human hand. Here is the Fountain of the Ogre, at
Berne. In the right picture two women are chatting, with arms akimho,
over its basin; before the plate for the left picture is got ready,
“one shall be taken and the other left”; look! on the left side there
is but one woman, and you may see the blur where the other is melting
into thin air as she fades forever from your eyes.

Oh, infinite volumes of poems that I treasure in this small library of
glass and pasteboard! I creep over the vast features of Rameses, on
the face of his rockhewn Nubian temple; I scale the huge mountain-
crystal that calls itself the Pyramid of Cheops. I pace the length of
the three Titanic stones of the wall of Baalbec,–mightiest masses of
quarried rock that man has lifted into the air; and then I dive into
some mass of foliage with my microscope, and trace the veinings of a
leaf so delicately wrought in the painting not made with hands, that I
can almost see its down and the green aphis that sucks its juices. I
look into the eyes of the caged tiger, and on the scaly train of the
crocodile, stretched on the sands of the river that has mirrored a
hundred dynasties. I stroll through Rhenish vineyards, I sit under
Roman arches, I walk the streets of once huried cities, I look into
the chasms of Alpine glaciers, and on the rush of wasteful cataracts.
I pass, in a moment, from the banks of the Charles to the ford of the
Jordan, and leave my outward frame in the arm-chair at my table, while
in spirit I am looking down upon Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives.

“Give me the full tide of life at Charing Cross,” said Dr. Johnson.
here is Charing Cross, but without the full tide of life. A perpetual
stream of figures leaves no definite shapes upon the picture. But on
one side of this stereoscopic doublet a little London “gent” is
leaning pensively against a post; on the other side he is seen sitting
at the foot of the next post;–what is the matter with the little ”
gent”?

The very things which an artist would leave out, or render
imperfectly, the photograph takes infinite care with, and so makes its
illusions perfect. What is the picture of a drum without the marks on
its head where the beating of the sticks has darkened the parchment?
In three pictures of the Ann Hathaway Cottage, before us,–the most
perfect, perhaps, of all the paper stereographs we have seen,–the door
at the farther end of the cottage is open, and we see the marks left
by the rubbing of hands and shoulders as the good people came through
the entry, or leaned against it, or felt for the latch. It is not
impossible that scales from the epidermis of the trembling hand of Ann
Hathaway’s young suitor, Will Shakspeare, are still adherent about the
old latch and dOOr, and that they contribute to the stains we see in
our picture.

Among the accidents of life, as delineated in the stereograph, there
is one that rarely fails in any extended view which shows us the
details of streets and buildings. There may be neither man nor beast
nor vehicle to be seen. You may be looking down on a place in such a
way that none of the ordinary marks of its being actually inhabited
show themselves. But in the rawest Western settlement and the oldest
Eastern city, in the midst of the shanties at Pike’s Peak and
stretching across the court-yards as you look into them from above the
clay-plastered roofs of Damascus, wherever man lives with any of the
decencies of civilization, you will find the clothes-line. It may be a
fence, (in Ireland,)–it may be a tree, (if the Irish license is still
allowed us,)–but clothes-drying, or a place to dry clothes on, the
stereoscopic photograph insists on finding, wherever it gives us a
group of houses. This is the city of Berne. How it brings the people
who sleep under that roof before us to see their sheets drying on that
fence! and how real it makes the men in that house to look at their
shirts hanging, arms down, from yonder line!

The reader will, perhaps, thank us for a few hints as to the choice of
stereoscopes and stereoscopic pictures. The only way to be sure of
getting a good instrument is to try a numher of them, but it may be
well to know which are worth trying. Those made with achromatic
glasses may be as much better as they are dearer, but we have not been
able to satisfy ourselves of the fact. We do not commonly find any
trouble from chromatic aberration (or false color in the image). It is
an excellent thing to have the glasses adjust by pulling out and
pushing in, either by the hand, or, more conveniently, by a screw. The
large instrumeats, holding twenty-five slides, are best adapted to the
use of those who wish to show their views often to friends; the owner
is a little apt to get tired of the unvarying round in which they
present themselves. Perhaps we relish them more for having a little
trouble in placing them, as we do nuts that we crack better than those
we buy cracked. In optical effect, there is not much difference
between them and the best ordinary instruments. We employ one
stereoscope with adjusting glasses for the hand, and another common
one upon a broad rosewood stand. The stand may be added to any
instrument, and is a great convenience.

Some will have none but glass stereoscopic pictures; paper ones are
not good enough for them. Wisdom dwells not with such. It is true that
there is a brilliancy in a glass picture, with a flood of light
pouring through it, which no paper one, with the light necessarily
falling on it, can approach. But this brilliancy fatigues the eye much
more than the quiet reflected light of the paper stereograph. Twenty-
five glass slides, well inspected in a strong light, are good for one
headache, if a person is disposed to that trouble.

Again, a good paper photograph is infinitely better than a bad glass
one. We have a glass stereograph of Bethlehem, which looks as if the
ground were covered with snow-and-paper ones of Jerusalem, colored and
uncolored, much superior to it both in effect and detail. The Oriental
pictures, we think, are apt to have this white, patchy look; possibly
we do not get the best in this country.

A good view on glass or paper is, as a rule, best uncolored. But some
of the American views of Niagara on glass are greatly improved by
being colored; the water being rendered vastly more suggestive of the
reality by the deep green tinge. Per contra, we have seen some
American views so carelessly colored that they were all the worse for
having been meddled with. The views of the Hathaway Cottage, before
referred to, are not only admirable in themselves, but some of them
are admirably colored also. Few glass stereographs compare with them
as real representatives of Nature.

In choosing stereoscopic pictures, beware of investing largely in
groups. The owner soon gets tired to death of them. Two or three of
the most striking among them are worth having, but mostly they are
detestable,–vulgar repetitions of vulgar models, shamming grace,
gentility, and emotion, by the aid of costumes, attitudes,
expressions, and accessories worthy only of a Thespian society of
candlesnuffers. In buying brides under veils, and such figures, look
at the lady’s hands. You will very probably find the young countess is
a maid-of-all-work. The presence of a human figure adds greatly to the
interest of all architectural views, by giving us a standard of size,
and should often decide our choice out of a variety of such pictures.
No view pleases the eye which has glaring patches in it,–a perfectly
white-looking river, for instance,–or trees and shrubs in full leaf,
but looking as if they were covered with snow,–or glaring roads, or
frosted-looking stones and pebbles. As for composition in landscape,
each person must consult his own taste. All have agreed in admiring
many of the Irish views, as those about the Lakes of Killarney, for
instance, which are beautiful alike in general effect and in nicety of
detail. The glass views on the Rhine, and of the Pyrenees in Spain,
are of consummate beauty. As a specimen of the most perfect, in its
truth and union of harmony and contrast, the view of the Circus of
Gavarni, with the female figure on horseback in the front ground, is
not surpassed by any we remember to have seen.

What is to come of the stereoscope and the photograph we are almost
afraid to guess, lest we should seem extravagant. But, premising that
we are to give a colored stereoscopic mental view of their prospects,
we will venture on a few glimpses at a conceivable, if not a possible
future.

Form is henceforth divorced from matter. In fact, matter as a visible
object is of no great use any longer, except as the mould on which
form is shaped. Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken
from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it
down or burn it up, if you please. We must, perhaps, sacrifice some
luxury in the loss of color; but form and light and shade are the
great things, and even color can be added, and perhaps by and by may
be got direct from Nature.

There is only one Coliseum or Pantheon; but how many millions of
potential negatives have they shed,–representatives of billions of
pictures,–since they were erected! Matter in large masses must always
be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. We have got the
fruit of creation now, and need not trouble ourselves with the core.
Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its
surface for us. Men will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects,
as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave
the carcasses as of little worth.

The consequence of this will soon be such an enormous collection of
forms that they will have to be classified and arranged in vast
libraries, as books are now. The time will come when a man who wishes
to see any object, natural or artificial, will go to the Imperial,
National, or City Stereographic Library and call for its skin or form,
as he would for a book at any common library. We do now distinctly
propose the creation of a comprehensive and systematic stereographic
library, where all men can find the special forms they particularly
desire to see as artists, or as scholars, or as mechhnics, or in any
other capacity. Already a workman has been travelling about the
country with stereographic views of furniture, showing his employer’s
patterns in this way, and taking orders for them. This is a mere hint
of what is coming before long.

Again, we must have special stereographic collections, just as we have
professional and other special libraries. And as a means of
facilitating the formation of public and private stereographic
collections, there must be arranged a comprehensive system of
exchanges, so that there may grow up something like a universal
currency of these bank-notes, or promises to pay in solid substance,
which the sun has engraved for the great Bank of Nature.

To render comparison of similar objects, or of any that we may wish to
see side by side, easy, there should be a stereographic metre or fixed
standard of focal length for the camera lens, to furnish by its
multiples or fractions, if necessary, the scale of distances, and the
standard of power in the stereoscope-lens. In this way the eye can
make the most rapid and exact comparisons. If the “great elm” and the
Cowthorpe oak, if the State-House and St. Peter’s, were taken on the
same scale, and looked at with the same inagnifying power, we should
compare them without the possibility of being misled by those
partialities which might tend to make us overrate the indigenous
vegetable and the dome of our native Michel Angelo.

The next European war will send us stereographs of battles. It is
asserted that a bursting shell can be photographed. The time is
perhaps at hand when a flash of light, as sudden and brief as that of
the lightning which shows a whirling wheel standing stock still, shall
preserve the very instant of the shock of contact of the mighty armies
that are even now gathering. The lightning from heaven does actually
photograph natural objects on the bodies of those it has just blasted,–
so we are told by many witnesses. The lightning of clashing sabres and
bayonets may be forced to stereotype itself in a stillness as complete
as that of the tumbling tide of Niagara as we see it self-pictured.

We should be led on too far, if we developed our belief as to the
transformations to be wrought by this greatest of human triumph over
earthly conditions, the divorce of form and substance. Let our readers
fill out a blank check on the future as they like,–we give our
indorsement to their imaginations beforehand. We are looking into
stereoscopes as pretty toys, and wondering over the photograph as a
charming novelty; but before another generation has passed away, it
will be recognized that a new epoch in the history of human progress
dates from the time when He who

never but in uncreated light
Dwelt from eternity–

took a pencil of fire from the hand of the “angel standing in the
sun,” and placed it in the hands of a mortal.

http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/186007/gray
http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/194711/einstein-atomic
http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/192812/minor1