Wednesday, 9 July 2014

‘Between the Book and the Lamp’: The nineteenth-century stereoscope as a Phenomenological metonym for lived-experience.

Michel Foucault noted in his ‘Afterword to The Temptation of Saint Anthony’ that naturalists of the sixteenth century such as Aldrovandi were not worse or less credulous observers by modern standards, only that they simply observed things according to a different pattern of order whose priorities took the place of those that observers might consider today. In his essay Foucault states that: “The imaginary now resides between the book and the lamp. The fantastic is no longer a property of the heart nor is it found among the incongruities of nature ... Dreams are no longer summoned with closed eyes, but in reading ... The imaginary ... is a phenomenon of the library.”[1]

This essay is about the experience of perception from a phenomenological point of view and of how the experience of the visual can adapt accordingly. In 1839, Victorian society was changed forever by the announcement of two competing forms of visual art; the calotype, developed by William Henry Fox Talbot in England and the Daguerreotype, by Louis Jaque Mande Daguerre in France. Effectively ‘fixing’ an image taken with the Camera Obscura – a device that had been utilized by draftsmen for centuries – upon paper or polished metal, the resulting image came to be generically termed a Photograph and the Victorian understanding of and about the world in which they inhabited was changed forever.

Through the Calotype and Daguerreotype, photographs offered a seemingly neutral and transparent means by which the Victorians could classify and collect, order and describe the world in which they lived. The development of Photography coincided with a widening middle-class and the height of the ‘grand tour’ in the nineteenth century; the rite of passage taken by most upper-class young men in which were visited ‘Romantic’ countries such as Italy and Egypt. The connection between photography and travel was made so early that in his introductory portfolio of Calotypes ‘The Pencil of Nature’, Fox-Talbot wrote that his idea (for photography) was born from his frustration at his own draughtsman skills while visiting Lake Como. In Paris, many young men put off leaving for their own grand tour in 1839 in anticipation of the French governments disclosure of the Daguerreotype process. The Parisian optician N.M.P. Lerebours equipped and commissioned young men such as Pierre Gustave Joly de Lotbiniere with Daguerreotype outfits specifically in order to capture the grand tour for domestic consumption at home in Paris.

            Five engravings from Joly de Lotbiniere’s Daguerreotype’s were included in Lerebours’ book Excursions Dageurriennes: Vue et Monuments les Plus Remarquables du Globe, published 1841-42 in Paris, Causing a sensation upon printing and instilling in the public a thirst for vicarious armchair travel. The phrase “an engraving from a Daguerreotype” became shorthand for a guarantee of visual authority. As technology developed and photography became the homogenous term, the means by which they were printed and distributed became more widely available and more easily disseminated. Developments in photography on paper meant that multiple copies could be made and “hand-tipped” onto blank or pre-printed pages allowing for entire books to be printed with photographs depicting far-off and exotic places.  In her writing on travel photography, Joan M. Schwartz has dubbed this phenomena ‘Virtual Witnessing’, “whereby distant places could be observed and, thereby, known through the agency of photographs they became a surrogate for travel.”[2]
A novel new form of armchair travel which fully embraces the term ‘Virtual Witnessing’ came in the form of the Stereoscopic View which produced, according to one contemporary account; “an appearance of reality which cheats the senses with its seeming truth.”[3] Developed in 1859, by William England who spent 6 months taking photographic views in the United States and Canada, stereoscopic views consisted of two real albumen photographs that had been taken simultaneously by a camera with two lenses, the same distance apart as a pair of eyes. Printed side by side onto card stock they were placed into a “viewer” which acted as a pair of magnifying glasses and holder, cutting out any peripheral vision and forming a single three-dimensional image, giving one the sense of being ‘inside the photograph’. In July 1860, The Art Journal credited William England’s North American stereoscopic views with bringing people into “closer and safer acquaintance with the New World than all books that have been written on the subject.”[4]

                        This acceptance of visual truth over the written word was quickly becoming the predominate ideal in Western art as the emergence of the photograph and the notion of the camera as a faultless, objective and neutral machine gained precedence. Considered free from the ‘subjective idealization’ of the artist’s hand, the Camera Obscura was finally free to transcribe nature in its most authentic and precise detail, as for centuries the term ‘mechanical’ had long been associated with any labour executed with the hands. However, the subjectivity of the camera operator had not been anticipated, and an interpretation of the world would always be enacted through the camera. In this sense, photography can be thought of as much of a subjective form of art as is painting. Particularly throughout the nineteenth century most travel photography was developed by and for an upper – middle class audience with a Westernised, colonialist, Imperialist narrative in mind. They “offered a means by which to describe, interpret, order and classify, and thereby come to know and comprehend the world.”[5] In his essay ‘Cézanne’s Doubt’, Merleau-Ponty states that Cézanne was known to say that the human face should be painted as if an object in its own right. This phenomenological approach to the execution of artworks by Merleau-Ponty tells us more about Cézanne’s approach toward the “alienation of his humanity” in his painting, than anything else[6]. It becomes clear that Merlau-Ponty reads Cézanne’s interpretation of the world around him from a purely reactionary point of view. Like an insect reacting to its environment like a volcano:

“In Aix a child once hit him as he passed by; after that he could not bear any contact. One day when Cézanne was quite old, Émile Bernard steadied him as he stumbled. Cézanne flew into a rage.”

Cézanne parted ways with the Impressionists, rejecting an interpretation of painting that represented the way in which light attacks the senses. He was far more interested in the interpretation of function through form, which is clearly why Merleau-Ponty celebrates his work so. In his book, ‘Experimental Phenomenology’ Don Ihde speaks of a “Hermeneutic relation”, that of a relation with the world through a machine which can help to  “extend intentionality into the world”[7]. As an example he describes his experience of writing on a board with a piece of chalk. Without the chalk, he states, he would not be able to write on the board, thus the chalk acts as a sort of translator between himself and the board: “There is a partial opacity between the machine and the world and thus the machine is something like a text”

One could also think of a paintbrush in the same sense. Merleau-Ponty certainly relates Cezanne’s own experiences toward his painting in the same way. In this sense, Cezannes painting can be said to be interpretations of his own view of the world as laid out by the translator; his paintbrush. As Ihde states; “instrumentation that embodies perception is not the only instrumental possibility for perception.”[8] In much the same way, the Victorian stereoscope and the experience of viewing through it  could be said to act in the same way and in a more perfect sense than a mere photograph in that it is a translation of a machine’s view of the world. Made palatable by the three-dimensional and all-encompassing effects of the viewer which effectively reforms and translates the world, through a subjective interpretation, for an upper-middle class Victorian audience.

The experience of the stereoscope, with its three-dimensional effect, was an all-encompassing experience that led the viewer to florid verbal descriptions of its effects. A contemporary reading of the effect of the stereoscope by The Times interprets its ability to allow the traveler to “travel… with all the vividness of reality.” The attention paid in this article connecting the sights to experience itself, offer something like a phenomenological reading of the stereoscope’s effects upon the Victorian imagination:

“Stereoscopes, in fact, anticipate travel. The peculiar genius of the Egyptians, as manifested in their rock-hewn temples and colossal monuments, can be appreciated and understood in beautiful little stereoscopes without quitting an arm-chair

… We can study and admire the sacred shrines of the Holy Land, and look with something like dismay on those arid plains which spread in a sea of hot sand round Mounts Horeb and Sinai.”[9]

This attempt at verbally describing the experience of viewing a stereoscope image through a stereoscope, with its all encompassing sensation of “being there”, recalling the “Dasein” of the first phenomenological reduction as set out by Husserl.

In the Phenomenological sense the experience of viewing through the stereoscope resembles what Husserl calls Noesis; the synthesis of various moments of experience into one. Both in the sense that the viewer appears to combine two separate image into one three-dimensional whole and in the sense that the images themselves transcend and synthsise various moments in time; the period of the experience of looking combined the peiod of time in which the image was taken. As a fragmentation and interpretation of experience the stereoscope acts as a form of phenomenological reduction itself, presenting an idealised version of a scene.

As a form of mimesis, the experience of “being there” profoundly affected the experience of the photograph as an objective and accurate representation of lived experience. Like Cézanne and his contemporary painters, the stereoscope fragmented the way in which the world was perceived; transforming experience into a collection of destinations, as a surrogate for travel itself. Packaged up for easy consumption in the comfort of ones armchair the stereotype and travel-photography in general left out other senses such as touch and smell that would affect the experience of taking these trips oneself. Like Cezanne’s paintings, an idealized experience was formed which, much like the interpretation of colour and shade in a painting, was seen through an ideological filter that ‘conveniently’ fell short of depicting the less-salient aspects of foreign-travel in the nineteenth century.  The same Times article goes on to say:

“It is hardly too much praise to say that a good set of stereoscopic views is equal in interest to a good book of travels, with all those additional advantages which the former must derive from giving us their quick, life-like glimpses into costumes, manners, and modes of life of all kinds, and reproducing with minute fidelity the scenery which is always so characteristic of a people.”[10]

The relationship between the interpreted scene of a photograph is made all the more complicated by the indexical relationship between the real and the photograph. Unlike a Cézanne painting, there is an indexical relationship between what is depicted and what is represented in a photograph. The photograph, in its various forms for much of the nineteenth century, had a physical presence in the world. As Geoffrey Batchen put it, “as a footprint is to a foot, so is a photograph to its referent.”[11]
Roland Barthe makes much of photography’s relationship to indexicality in his book Camera Lucida. Getting closer to the metaphysical aspect of photography’s power as a “certificate of presence”, he writes:

“The photograph is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here…a sot of umbilical cord links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze”[12]

The indexical relationship with the space depicted in a travel stereotype creates an almost Holy aura that transcends time as it transcribes it, stopping it in its tracks. Yet this, for the armchair traveler, also allows them to travel into the past, creating a museum of images in front of their eyes. This recalls Foucault’s Heterotopia which, when “connected with temporal discontinuities”[13] are referred to as Heterochronia.

Not only does the Victorian travel-stereotype show the very moment – or moments – in which it was taken, but by photographing the “rock-hewn temples and colossal monuments” of ancient Egypt, time itself becomes a place. “As temporally specific visual descriptions … their ability to stop the flow of time and thereby preserve appearances, fleeting in reality, both denied and demonstrated change.”[14]

            If, as in Foucault’s description, “Museums and Libraries are Heterotopias in which time never ceases to pile up and perch on its own summit,” then we can think of the Victorian travel-stereotype in much the same way as “… constituting a place of all times that is itself outside time and protected from its erosion.”[15]  In this sense then, the website Stereogranimator[16] acts as a museum also. The website invites viewers to create their own animation using the collection of stereoscopes held by the New York Public Library. The Stereogranimator animates together the two frames of a stereoscope view, cleverly recreating the three-dimensional effect of the stereoscope without the aid of a viewer. In this sense the website acts as a Heterchronia for the travel stereoscope, itself a heterochronia, bringing it into the 21st century and adding another layer of time to our experience of the stereoscope as a form of Heterochronia.

As Don Ihde has argued the use of “instruments” or “machines” to interpret our “world” can have a profound effect on the interpretation of the “world” in question: “The scientist observes dial readings and tracings on photographic and computer-generated plates and, at least for confirmations of his theories, relates to a world through, with, or by instruments.”[17] As I have argued, the stereoscope (and the photographic camera) can be considered similarly as a “machine” or “instrument” which interprets that world for us. Much like Ihde’s piece of chalk or Cézanne’s paintbrush it creates for us a world similar to the Noesis of Husserl. The stereogram viewer and its accompanied experience acts as a form of museum in the Foucauldian sense of Heterochronia. This can be extended further to include the website Stereogranimator acts which itself acts as an extension of the museum into the 21st century.


Batchen, Geoffrey, ‘Ere the Substance Fade’, in Edwards, Elizabeth and Hart (Eds), Photographs, Objects, Histories: On the Materiality of Images, Janice, London: Routledge, 2004, pp.

Barthe, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage, 1993

Cerbone, David R., Understanding Phenomenology. Stocksfield: Acumen, 2006, pp. 28-37
Foucault, Michel, ‘Afterword to The Temptation of Saint Anthony’, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984. Volume Two. James D. Faubion (Eds.). Tr. Robert Hurley. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Allen Lane, Penguin, 1998, pp. 103–22.

Foucault, Michel, Different Spaces, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984. Volume Two. James D. Faubion (Eds.). Tr. Robert Hurley. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Allen Lane, Penguin, 1998, pp. 175-185.

Ihde, Don, Experimental Phenomenology: Multistabilities. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012

Schwartz, Joan M., The Geography Lesson: Photographs and the Construction of Imaginative Geographies, Journal of Historical Geography, 22, 1 (1996), 16-45

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice, Cézanne's Doubt In Ted Toadvine & Leonard Lawlor (Eds.), The Merleau-Ponty Reader, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007, pp. 69-84.

[1] Foucault, Michel, (1998) ‘Afterword to The Temptation of Saint Anthony’, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984. Volume Two. Edited by James D. Faubion. Tr. Robert Hurley and others. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Allen Lane, Penguin, p. 105-6
[2] Schwartz, Joan M., The Geography Lesson: Photographs and the Construction of Imaginative Geographies, Journal of Historical Geography, 22, 1 (1996), p.31
[3] My emphasis. Quoted in Schwartz, Joan M., The Geography Lesson’, p. 20
[4] Quoted in Schwartz, Joan M., The Geography Lesson’, p. 28.
[5] Ibid, p. 31
[6] Merleau-Ponty, p.70
[7] Ihde, Don, Experimental Phenomenology: Multistabilities. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012, p. 102
[8] Ibid, p. 103
[9] The Times (London) 3 May 1860 quoted in Schwartz, p. 29
[10] Ibid.
[11] Batchen, Geoffrey, ‘Ere the Substance Fade’, in Edwards, Elizabeth and Hart (Eds), Photographs, Objects, Histories: On the Materiality of Images, Janice, London: Routledge, 2004, p. 40
[12] Barthe, Roland, Camera Lucida, London: Vintage, 1993, p.80, my emphasis.
[13] Foucault, Michel, ‘Different Spaces’, in Aesthetics, Method and Epistemology. The Essential Works of Michel Foucault 1954–1984. Volume Two. James D. Faubion (Eds.). Tr. Robert Hurley. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Allen Lane, Penguin, 1998, p.182
[14] Schwartz, p. 31
[15] Foucault, ‘Different Spaces’, p.182
[17] Ihde, p. 100