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  • Writer's pictureTom Paine

The Three Ds of 3-D

I wonder if the rules of the visual game might be changing. Just as the experience of the eyes has always crowded out that of the other senses, increasingly 2-D experience is crowding out 3-D experience, and may well dominate human experience from here on out. We are deluged in paper, and locked onto cellphone screens, computer screens, TV screens, and movie screens. Even in galleries, the experience of art is rarely sculptural, and in theaters, unless you have a seat within a few rows of the stage, the experience is almost as flat. The thousands of 2-D images and words that our eyes now absorb daily make up much of our active daily experience and much of what we know. But is this really knowing? How much does 3-D matter? We seem to lack much of a vocabulary to talk about depth with a depth of feeling or understanding. Are we missing something?

1: Depiction

People only became aware of 3-D in the early nineteenth century with the investigation, or call it discovery, of bifocalism, the year before the invention of photography in 1839. The notion of depth perception was born. Photography and stereo converged and stayed linked, if not exactly equal cultural forces, ever after. Within fifteen years, mass stereo photography—pairs of photographs, one for each eye—allowed the three dimensionality of space to be depicted and thereby experienced vicariously for the first time by non-professionals. A view over a mountainside could suggest plunging depth. A vista down a corridor hit you with the force of a train barreling through a tunnel. If depth added vividness and vitality to the perception of the subject, then perception of depth became an enjoyable end in itself.

All it took was a viewer in hand, something like opera glasses, and presto, you were there, in the thick of it. From the next 150 years, if you wanted into the stereo world, you had to pass through the looking glass of viewer/goggles. And that gateway getaway has always limited the 3-D experience to being a fad instead of a second-nature cultural cornerstone like photography, or stereo sound.

Stereoscope invented by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes (wiki)
Stereoscope invented by Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes (wiki)

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and wife Amelia in 1850s
Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and wife Amelia in 1850s

Bartholdi fundraising for his Statue of Liberty, Philadelphia International Exhibition, 1876

The journey of stereo depiction has been jolted with fits and starts, from the first craze in the 1850s, through the waves of popularity in the monochromatic and sometimes colorized era over the next eight decades, the eclipse by cinema despite occasional 3-D productions in the 1950s, the modest revival through Viewmaster and Realist color slides, to the more recent revival of goggle-wearing 3-D moviegoers and IMAX. Now we have the latest 3-D fad, auto-stereo. Train your eyes, and they will see the stereo where only viewers helped before. Full disclosure: experiencing 3-D without a viewer is only a little easier than speaking in a foreign accent on the first go.

While color and form theorists and art and movie critics abound, depth theorists and 3-D critics are hopelessly outgunned. Nothing in 3-D history exactly suggests a deep-seated biological imperative to exercise our 3-D muscles lest they atrophy. However, looking at stereo was once relegated to eye therapy, until even that proved to be a fad. 3-D has been a parlor craze, a fad, a curiosity, but only for some unregenerate souls, an obsession. For them, it is so obvious why they love 3-D that they may not mind that they lack the words to convey the reasons for their enthusiasm, and that is too bad.

A Viewmaster reel, to be inserted and rotated in a viewer
A Viewmaster reel, to be inserted and rotated in a viewer

My own obsession has shown fits and starts. I first became a fan of stereo photography the moment I put a twin lens Viewmaster viewer up to my eyes at age ten in the late 1950s. I was transfixed, smitten, you name it, by the sense of space hiding in snippets of emulsion, seven pairs to a reel, of Japanese tea plantations, Dutch windmills, butterflies on flowers, and locomotives. Soon “lenticular” (washboard) cards turned up in cereal boxes and as postcards allowing 3-D or animation but not both, and never elevated to an art form.

Colored slides (1938-2008) of blessed memory could not compete with digital imagery in the limited 2-D imagery world, It was not until 1967 that I began taking stereographic slides.. Harvard architecture student Randolph Langenbach introduced me to taking slide pairs from two vantage points an eye-pair apart. Unless I used a camera capable of simultaneous exposure, I had to avoid moving objects of all kinds, for movement would mar the effect. The old New England mills Ranny and I were looking at served well enough, and the movement of foliage and water was quaint in its own way.

Ranny told me that combining polarized lenses and lenticular screens allowed for group experience through projection, but I contented myself with two hand-held single slide viewers. Soon I experimented with a 200-millimeter telephoto lens, moving five feet apart between shots. I did not hear the term for what I had discovered for myself—hyperstereo—for 25 years.

In Europe I discovered the pleasures of Gothic vaulted ceilings, domed Hagia Sofia, shafts of light through space. If the reality of stereo seemed ideal for recording the experience of outstanding architectural space, I also began to understand that the hyper-reality of stereo created its own longing of a more intense and personal kind. Stereo was sensual. I confess that I first noticed these special powers in Bernini's sculpture, the Rape of Persephone. No merely flat photograph could show how deeply his rough hands press into the soft flesh of her thigh. That vividness is what arouses our empathy for the victim.

Over time I came to appreciate that only stereo can record the experience of perceiving the contours of soft surfaces, so essential to our sensory experience, so elusive in mere two-dimensional transcription.

In 1969 John Tatlock, a cousin who happened to be a collector of Victoriana, introduced me to stereopticons and antique stereographs. The following summer, when I was working in Washington D.C., I came across my first stereograph cards in an antique store window in Georgetown. Uncannily, one was of Weston, Mass., my hometown, another of the Crystal Palace, a favorite landmark in architectural history. So I bought them, and from then on stayed on the lookout for more at antique shops or flea markets. Stereographs were cheap, at prices as low as under a dime each, and offered the most vivid window on the exciting decades preceding the cinematic-color photo era, but selection in the antique and used book shops I visited was limited. Few of my early stereographs were in mint condition. Soon I owned a stereoscope or two as well.

Initially I focused on views of New England landscapes and townscapes. For example, on the front, two unprepossessing clumps of trees as close as identical twins, and like them visibly different only in small ways, but through the viewer they combine to reveal, in their midst, the bowl of a glacial kettle hole. It is a masterpiece of composition in depth. On the back, the card reads, Hiram D. Adams, View Artist. Exactly so. I bought it early, and unlike lesser stereo snapshots it stands the test of time. The exotic image also had its appeal; perhaps my first is of a sitar player beside the Lake of Kashmir.


Special effects:  a transparent angel watches over a martyr
Special effects: a transparent angel watches over a martyr

Simultaneously, training as a landscape architect, I acquired first-hand experience in a purely utilitarian use of stereo in aerial photographic interpretation, in which a pair of high-altitude black and white photos are viewed through lenses, and terrain stands out in bold relief—canyons, fingers of ledge, smooth drumlins, a mosaic of evergreen and deciduous forest cover. Here was hyperstereo yielding information not even available from the airplane window itself.

In two extended work-stays in England with side trips to continental Europe in the early seventies, I took hundreds of slide pairs. Why I am not sure, but after that I gradually put aside stereo slide photography. I was mimicking the cyclicality that had always been inherent in stereo. My big photo-op of the 1970s was a year in Asia, but I shot just a few stereographs. Shame on me! All those Chinese and Japanese gardens! I should have asked countless Asians in Taiwan and Bali to indulge me.

Nevertheless I did keep collecting stereographs in a steady trickle over the years. Only in the nineties did I learn about antiquarian-photogaphica shows and started attending. For the first time I was face-to-face with actual dealers in stereograph cards by the hundreds, thousands. And Viewmasters and Realist 3-D slides. I stayed with the older cards. I was in love with the you-are-there window not on, but into, the exotic world, distant in both time and place, of the nineteenth century. True, the prices were now five to ten times higher than two decades earlier, averaging three dollars per view, good ones ten times that. The trickle grew into a seasonal torrent. Becoming more systematic, I collected stereographs of foreign architecture, landscapes, sculpture and figures, including Asian, and could get fussy about the condition. I had my wish list of favorite world-class sites, but always came away most pleased with the totally unexpected surprises. Someday maybe the long-sought views of Petra or Rodin sculpture would surprise me.


A little known homage to Lady Liberty in China--topping the memorial to heroes of the Chinese Revolution in 1911

When I resumed taking stereo slide pairs, I focused on the nearest and dearest: gardens of my design and transformative landscapes, evanescent effects of light, the people in my life. I discovered that doing the cha-cha, or using a single lens camera to take a pair of slides in sequence, provided stereo magic that two-lens stereo cameras could not: a sense of fractured time, a blur that infused otherwise still images with a sense of animation.

My timing coincided with the latest craze, autostereo: computer images of one thing that hid 3-D images of something entirely different, discernable to the naked eye. Gone were the goggles. Suddenly, there were fantasy images, and the only gateway was 3-D.

I finally got to see 3-D projection indoors; these were still images. I wore the polarized goggles, and felt slightly queasy even with the softness of dissolve transitions. Some images were evocative, others merely a good opportunity spoiled. I sat far back, and learned for the first time that the farther away you are, the more depth is drawn out to you.

All the while, I was wondering where our 2-D world was heading.


2: Decline

As I say, ever since the world was discovered to be round, our eyes have been going flat. Most of us spend hours of our waking days reading, working on the computer, going to movies, watching TV, seeing vicariously, hardly tapping our bifocal intelligence. It is as if one eye were a spare for the other. We seem to spend energy converting (or correcting) 3-D images into flat ones, just as when we go to the movies and sit way to one side we convert the distorted oblique rectangle into the memory of a proper rectangle.

In the real world we take 3-D for granted. Bifocal vision may have been born of necessity—a space perception tool for orienting us in a hostile world—and the tool is still useful that way in the real world, I should say merely useful, so little do we take note of it in everything we do as we navigate through our chores, even when we go for a walk, or play tennis. For most of us real-world 3-D is held in less esteem than the wonder of 2-D’s vicarious pleasures. Something about the planarity of 2-D delights us. It is a form of simplification of reality, even of abstraction. A perfectly toned photograph of a paper bag in all its glorious sfumato shadow and highlights delights us with its virtuosity as the bag itself could never hope to.

Since the cave paintings of Altamira and Lascaux, we humans have marched steadily down a path of trying to understand our universe by translating what we see in the round onto flat surfaces. The space that we so vividly experience in the stereo of binocular vision, by necessity loses something in translation onto rock walls, clay tablets, papyrus, silk, paper, whatever the latest two-dimensional medium may be. For all our addiction to them, these 2-D depictions are mere shadows of 3-D reality. And yet without the invention—or perhaps discovery (in some accidental camera obscura of a cave opening) of 2-D representation, perhaps 3-D representation would never have emerged, for it was all about a field of vision—rectangle or circle or whatever shape—containing a view.

And of course language is a poor proxy for spatial experience. For starters, languages are universally symbolized in 2-D systems of symbols like this alphabet. The great discoveries of graphic expression, alphabets and symbols, are so embedded in human experience that we cannot imagine life without its 2-D aids. 2-D is certainly workable; some would say its invention was a revolutionary achievement for human progress. But things kept “progressing” until at some point, to some of us, they seem to have gotten out of hand, and now our experience is becoming just a bit flat because of them. And that goes double for our recall: close your eyes and imagine a 3-D image. You may have trouble, although I have to imagine that we humans once found this to be effortless, second nature. Eyes closed, you finally come up with a 3-D memory for sure.. The stereo effect of the memory may well be carried in a dual file of the two images that make up the 3-D image. And yet as I imagine 3-D effects made up in my mind, I also can feel the depth as being in 3-D, not a 2-D surrogate.

I cannot speak for other languages with authority, but English, for all its richness, is hardly the repository for adjectives or verbs to describe the many ways we see space, or space’s opposite, the objects within it or that define it. We almost have to borrow from the other senses, especially tactile words that suggest textures, or words pregnant with Jungian symbolism, but even so words fail, as they do in so many other kinds of experience, to describe common everyday bifocal experience.

But now this 3-Dissing is getting out of hand. We know the very concept of “3-D” is in decline when its most active usage now refers to the latest computer game, wherein a remote or roving mouse produces movement though an intricate, but still 2-D world of the monitor screen.

Compare the fortunes of more recent developments in stereo sight and sound. On the one hand, sound is way out in front. We are well past settling for monaural: quadraphonic and surround-sound are replacing stereo, transforming our cars and family rooms. This seems to take hold with a craziness that is beyond mere craze.

On the other hand, we are baffled by the strange ride of holography. This laser technology has given us truly 3-D forms that can leap off a planar surface at us, or even move as we move by them. Holographic color can be extraordinarily real, or highly stylized. Subjects can even be living beasts or people, as long as you could get them to sit for a fussy laser beam. Holographic technology is still too cumbersome a medium for snapshots out in the real world, and not much headway is being made to overcome this impasse. In a way holography is caught in the same awkward, largely studio-bound circumstances of daguerreotypes 150 years ago. Manufacturers of the special glass that holograms required ceased production. Sadly, the thrill was gone before it ever had a chance to transcend novelty into high art.

As I write this I glance off for a moment through a window at bare tree branches and recapture the experience of depth before heading back to the 2-D world on my computer screen. I close one eye, the world goes flat, harder to make out, the tree branches are reduced to an indecipherable tangle, and when I open my eye again, I am grateful, and shudder to think what life would be like without its 3-D interludes.

One might think that 3-D perception is most essential when we are moving—walking, driving, riding, snowboarding, and once again face primal threats to our bodily integrity, or risk causing the same harm to others. But oddly, the sensation of movement crossing our eyes trumps depth perception. Close an eye, and move the head, and the movement of the objects we see in space still defines that space for us, although in a simplistic way. The less motion, the more we rely on stereo alone to read the space, and the more we notice stereo. In a motionless world, stereoscopic vision is all we have to disentangle the chaos and keep us out of trouble.

So it is that in stills, more than in movies, the nature of 3-D is clearest and the experience of 3-D is purest.

In a world glutted with 2-D expression, sooner or later an interest in 3-D expression will have to be taken seriously, and its practitioners, like serious 2-D photographers and computer graphic artists, committed to a profound new sense of artistry. I take the optimistic view that our media will continue to evolve until they allow us to reconnect with our world as round. 3-D is that much closer to spatial truth, and sooner or later, this truth too shall come to pass. 3-D is nothing less than the secular religion of those who thank God for bifocal vision. And it may well be that 3-D as art-form will lead The Way.


3: Desire

As I first discovered in my youthful hobby, bifocalism does not end in utilitarian servitude. Leave it to the human species to discover that 3-D is also an end in itself, a sensory delight, an aesthetic experience. We may not have the words for it that we have for other forms of sensory experience, but there is such a thing as spatial pleasure, a thing to be nourished if we could discover the aesthetic principles that explain the beauty of stereo. As I say, motion confuses things, so what follows concentrates on stills.

The first principle I offer consists in this irony: that we appreciate stereo most when we see it, too, vicariously. We are most likely to appreciate the beauty of 3-D when we view 3-D art, mostly still photography, but also including movies, holography, and computer-generated imagery. Stereo perception is at its most intense when there is no motion to distract us. Simply sitting still, with motion far from our minds, our gaze and viewpoint fixed, we are free to derive pure unadulterated pleasure revealed in every detailed spatial relationship. We may well call stereo stills studies in fermata. In contemplating such works it is as if we have power to stop time, like the protagonist in Nicholson Baker's Fermata (fermata being the prolongation of a musical moment), so that we might engage in a lingering voyeurism. There is no movement to hurry us along from one moment to the next. What we have, if the work is great, is a liminal moment, a moment of truth.

Vicarious stereo, in turn, reinforces our consciousness of real-time stereo, and in so doing stirs up in us, in our jaded blasé lives, a sense of childlike wonder as if we are reconnecting with our world with fresh eyes.

So what is this pleasure that 2-D fermata cannot impart? Our eyes glance over a plane in quite a different way from glancing through a space like an implied sphere or rectangular solid. Each spot we focus on causes all others in a different depth to go out of focus until our eyes move and we focus on them, one at a time, in the seamless process of recalibration that we call stereo vision. Whatever lies at a distance greatly different from what it is that we focus our eyes on is seen double, creating a ghost or transparency that energizes one eye or the other. One eye or the other dominates at a given moment, and the dominance switches back and forth. As soon as we see the ghosting effect, we seek to eliminate it by refocusing on the offending surface. It is that dance, that interactivity with depth, that is so compelling in 3-D and so missing in 2-D, and so essential in our real world. Once we have been there, 2-D images can never again compete with 3-D in-our-face immediacy and immersion. By comparison, most 2-D images seem to be stand-offish. Of course, we love 2-D art, but we love the parallel universe of 3-D just as much, because it is so much nearer to spatial truth, and those of us who are wired to worship 3-deism place high hopes in its future as an art form.

A 2-D surface, after all, always remains a surface. More intense than the interplay on the picture plane of figure and ground, in 3-D we must talk instead of figure and space. Indeed, in many 3-D images it is not a figure on a pedestal but the space itself that is so vividly recorded—and so unrecordable in 2-D. Indeed, many such images seem boring in 2-D and only become art when seen in 3-D.

In its vividness, 3-D almost bristles with tactile temptations. When we pore over stereos of sculpture, portraits, the human figure, and all living things, our eyes are our hand's proxy. Looking in from the edge of a space spread before us, in the middle of which a figure extends, projects, bulges, we visually touch, even caress the object. Like voyeurs, we are there, yet unseen. Our eyes travel across the face, over an abdomen, down the leg, feeling the concavity of a hollow cheek or the spherical shape of breast or buttock as clearly as the outline. More than that, we can run our eyes over contours too subtle to be seen without stereo, whether on the human body or in the landscape.

Stereo links the sense of sight to touch more closely than to smell, taste or sound. Still, I imagine that there are those who enjoy a synaesthetic linkage—stereo to smell, say—that this poor deprived writer can only dream of. For me, synergy is enough: the magic when two near twin images come together in visual sensuality. That is the double happiness of 3-D.

The delight in and desire of stereo point to an unexpressed aesthetic. There is a lot going on in stereo, and I cannot claim to do more than scratch the surface in offering a small compendium of archetypes that suggest how we might define the 3-D aesthetic, without being too dogmatic. I am far from being an aesthetician, so I will try to do the sensible thing and restrict what follows to what I think I know empirically.

First and most obvious are 3-D images that faithfully record the essence of spatial experience felt on the spot. When not much motion is implied, a still image is a perfect proxy. In this broad grouping I have in mind eight archetypes.

Corridor Vista. The most dramatic effect is the beeline sight-line plunging into the depths or toward the horizon, focusing our attention less on what lies at the end of the tunnel than on the receding perspective of the tunnel itself. This most obvious of stereo effects may appeal on a Jungian level as well.

Proscenium. The most obvious is the framed view: foreground vertical and horizontal elements form a proscenium through which we see the protagonist, and understand the context of our own vantage-point. Views without foreground elements lack the drama of a gateway, real or metaphorical.

Screens and scrims. Layered planes at separate intervals leading from foreground toward background creates a more complex effect than the single proscenium, sometimes almost labyrinthine in its provoking our curiosity as to what lies behind a layer or around the corner. The layers themselves are the view.

Still life. Sometimes no framing or layering need set the spatial stage, for in its complexity and depth a grouping standing on a plane, whether table top, floor, ground or water, produces its own magic.

Figure. Alone in implied space, the object in the round, whole or close up, can hold our attention if its form works as sculpture, oblique facade or portrait. Sculpture itself is one of the great art victims of 2-D vicariousness. We know most sculpture from books, wherein pre-modernist bronze, marble or plastic sculpture reads as nothing more than monochromatic prints. Sculpture without 3-D misses out on the whole point of the medium, an object in space, in the round, bulging out in all directions, or lunging at us.

Enclosure. The other great prisoner of 2-D shortchanging is great architectural space, whether urban plazas, interiors, ornament. Photographs cannot do justice to the spatial power of domes, vaults, gateway vistas.

Disentanglement. Like the tree branches outside my window, any busy pattern in space remains chaotic until redeemed by stereo. The Cyclopean, 2-D vision in the real world cannot do the job.

Composite. Even classic capitals combined otherwise distinct types to form something new and more baroque, composite producing complexity. For example, proscenium/corridor/figure. This is of course an expandable category.

So far, the archetypes simply record, as literally as possible, what we experience in the real world. The vicarious experience comes as close as possible to that original experience. The faithful record is interesting enough. More interesting still is the image that reveals more than does the original subject itself. I identify eight more archetypes.

Liminal Moment. As I have said, motion trumps stereo, and in the heat of the moment the spatial effect is lost in a blur. Here is when still stereographs give us something reality could not: a vividness of spatial relationships that was lost in the movement. What we have after the fact is not a faithful record of what was experienced, but something new. The beauty of ballet movement becomes sculpture. A group of people becomes a tableau vivant.

Fermata. An even greater pleasure flows from a snapshot of something not even suspected in the blur, a surprise, invisible in real-time, revealed in a stereograph, the way Edweard Muybridge’s pioneering photographs first proved that a horse’s four hoofs could leave the ground at once.

Topographical empowerment. The great casualty of 2-D is the soft, subtle contour, the shape of the ground, and stereo lets us take it back and savor it. Ask your local landscape architect.

Miniaturization. When the pair of images are taken from vantage-points further apart than our eyes, the effect is something the eyes cannot discern any other way. Photogrammetric mapmakers use this so-called hyperstereo aerial photography to map contours; aerial reconnaissance specialists use the stereo photographs to analyze the landscape that appears, in the exaggerated spatial world of hyperstereo, as a kind of scale model. The effect of miniaturization, like a scale model or a model train layout, seems to appeal to some deep-seated delight or longing, perhaps in a Jungian sense. We get to play God. The city or the landscape is laid out before us with the same immediacy of perspective as a body asleep on a bed. Its contours are fully as sensual, or at least as sculptural.


Hyperstereo of unidentified mountain landscape

Hong Kong in hyperstereo, 2007
Hong Kong and Shanghai in hyperstereo, 2007

Time lapse. Taking two images as a pair in time lapse introduces variations invisible in the real world.


Leaves floating by on Charles River in time lapse seem to hover in air. (1996 slide pair)

Rotation. A river turned sidewise, with its mirror reflection, imparts in stereo an effect too uncomfortable to spend much time with in the real world. A figure reclining on his/her back, rotated upside-down seems to be swimming, flying, floating.

Reversal. So-called “pseudoscopic” manipulation is the reversal of the right and left image to invert foreground and background, and thereby produce surreal, almost 4D effects. An aerial shot of a canyon, reversed and upside down, makes the world look inside out, like a piece of worn clothing, only fascinating.

Composite. Of course. Don’t get me started. Just imagine. Most interesting of all is the world opening up, ironically, from the advances in 2-D media, through alteration of the recorded images in the darkroom or on the computer.

Altered images, non-camera images. Computer-generated montages, morphs, stereographs hidden in patterns of a 2-D image are the latest frontier. Cloning Boris Vallejo’s magnificent paintings of fantasy heroes into stereo pairs demonstrates that anything is possible on a computer, a far cry from the original pairs of line drawings of boxes that announced the arrival of the bifocal age almost 2 centuries ago. Imagine combining, say, a stereo form hovering in space over a hyperstereo landscape, the scale of each distorted into a mythic image, like a God over Olympus, taking the magical realm of, say, Jerry Uelsmann’s fused-image pre-digital photography into the third dimension.

Someday soon, I imagine realms empowered by 3-D. I dream of 3-D illusions in outdoor spaces, perhaps holograms, creating magical meanings in otherwise sterile settings. I am optimistic that 3-D projection can be taken outdoors. Somewhere between this disjointed experience and the full-blown IMAX plot-line lies a happy use of 3-D creating the illusion of depth and movement to animate a space, subtly not overwhelmingly, with magic.

The more we experience the hyper-reality of viewing depictions in unexaggerated stereo, let alone hyperstereo, the more we can appreciate the sense of space in the real world seen first hand and learn to revere this precious gift of bifocal vision, so full of its own spatial pleasures, and see with two eyes as if for the first time.

© 2023 Thomas M. Paine






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