By MICHAEL PERKINS
ALMOST SINCE THE DAWN OF PHOTOGRAPHY, there has been one format or another for the creation of three-dimensional views. The first, and by far the most successful of the “armchair traveler” systems was the elegant stereopticon, the gadget through which paired, cardboard-mounted images transported the Victorian explorer to the wonders of the world, at precisely the same moment that many of those sites/sights were being photographically documented for the very first time. The Keystone View Company and its several imitators littered the planet with travelogues and celebrity portraits for nearly seventy years, and even served as many a hobbyist’s first introduction to color pictures (albeit hand-tinted ones) created years ahead of any practical chromatic film.
Keystone’s expansive packets on various subjects included lavish text on the card’s backs, and were marketed to adults with an emphasis on erudition. Over the next hundred years, dozens of 3-d formats would be launched, many of them supplying at least a smidge of context on their subjects, lots of them riding the line between serious devices and toys. The world’s most successful stereo product by far, View-Master, began with scenic titles in 1939, and has survived to the present day by licensing the use of Disney characters, TV and movie scenes, and in the 21st century, even an attempt at a virtual reality re-boot.
Leaning heavily on the kid’s plaything side of the ledger, a folding plastic card viewer from the late ’50’s called VistaScreen issued series on birds, animals and other subjects accompanied by neat little explanatory paragraphs. View sets were sold at the tourist attractions that they depicted as well as by mail order. The company’s brief tenure was boosted a bit in the early ’60’s when it entered into a promotion with the United Kingdom’s most successful cold breakfast cereal, Weetabix (think shredded wheat without the thrills). Kids in Australia, England, and New Zealand mailed away for the viewer (emblazoned with the product’s name on the back) and then collected one new stereo card per “packet” of cereal. There were 6 different sets of 25 cards with series names like Working Dogs, Thrills, British Cars, British Birds, Animals, and Our Pets. The cereal cards were disdained by stereo purists for being substantially inferior in quality to VistaScreen’s mail order sets, but the promotion actually kept the company alive for most of its five-year span, while also making a childhood 3-d fan of many a youngster, including Brian May, destined to become a stereoscopic collector, astrophysicist, and, not incidentally, the co-founder of Queen.
As a childhood View-Master geek, I was delighted to discover the VistaScreen system a few years back, since it was actually the stereo formats, and not standard “flat” photography, that first taught me composition and the importance of telling a clear visual story within a strict format. It’s ironic that I don’t typically shoot a lot of scenic titles these days, and yet have a lifelong affection for the travel images of my first photographic “toys”, the bait that got me to first pick up a camera and ask myself, “will this be a picture?”
And I didn’t have to eat Weetabix.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I’LL NEVER KNOW THE NAMES OF MANY OF THE PHOTOGRAPHERS THAT HAD THE GREATEST ROLES IN SHAPING MY EARLY WAY OF SEEING. The most important primary influences on my visual style in childhood weren’t the guys who received billing in the very public credits of Life, Look, or National Geographic, but the nameless freelancers whose work popped out of the small 3-d Kodachrome squares mounted in white cardboard View-Master reels. To this day, I can directly link the way I visualize images to VM’s crew of uncredited shooters, with their full-color highlight tours of everything from Yosemite to Notre Dame. Truly, from the first brown bakelite Model “D” viewer I received as a boy, through endless model variations over the next fifty years, I framed my own method for telling a picture story after the scenes in those little blue envelopes which bore the portentous legend, Seven More Wonders Of The World.
If you’ve been out of short pants for a while, you might not know that these little middle-tech stereoscopic beauties are still around, although just barely. View-Master has provided diversion and delight for three generations of devotees the world over, but the ride, billions of reels and zillions of memories later, might finally be crawling to a halt. More on that in a moment.
The co-invention of a photographer/tinker and a postcard salesman, View-Master cranked out its first rudimentary viewers and travel titles in 1939, more or less growing out of its appearance at the New York World’s Fair, where its souvenir views of “The World Of Tomorrow” made their debut. One of the earliest VM subjects was the then-new Boulder (later Hoover) Dam, setting the tone for the format’s explanatory “texts”, image descriptions short enough to make Tweets look encyclopedic, all crammed to fit inside the tiny caption window resting between your eyes. View-Master was largely an adult amusement for its first decade, catering to the armchair traveler with an endless catalogue of national parks, castles, cathedrals, and natural wonders, selling through a network of dealerships at camera shops and the souvenir stands at various travel attractions. Many of the format’s contributing scenic photographers also made some side money as VM sales agents, criss-crossing the country by car, shooting a little here, selling a little there.
By the early 50’s, View-Master grew from single-subject reels to three-reel packets and from travel images to its first children’s titles. Entering into a contract with Walt Disney studios, the VM format made a seismic shift toward youth fare with cartoon and TV shows, movies, even their own original fairy tale and nursery titles, shot with tiny clay figures arranged in their own miniature tabletop dioramas. And of course “the scenics”, as they were called, rolled on to chronicle many more World’s Fairs, canyons, mountains, parks, even NASA flights.
Depending on when you first encountered the format, View-Master was made either by Sawyers, GAF, Tyco, Fisher-Price, or Mattel, and the classic viewer was joined by projectors (2-D and 3-d), stereo cameras for making your own reels, “talking” viewers with internal phonographs to announce the captions, home “theatre” sets, storage cases and a slew of other short-and-long-term products.Now for the inevitable “passage of time” part: by the start of the 21st century, View-Master’s ancestral factory in Portland, Oregon closed its doors and production was moved to Mexico. And in 2013, there is, after sixty-four years, the clear possibility that the View-Master division of Mattel will be leased to a separate company, spun off like a despised stepchild, if not discontinued altogether.
Why the nostalgia? Because my whole orientation toward trying to tell a compelling, simple story in pictures, nurtured later by more famous photographers, cut its baby teeth on View-Master images: the composition, the angle, the way of leading the viewer’s eye into a frame and nailing it there….that’s all part of the “reel” world of my early, baby-sized eyes. There is no wasted space, no cute artiness in a View-Master image. It is all practical information, all shorthand communication. And even though the kiddie titles have long dominated the format’s output, there are, amazingly, still artists who create everything from complete tours of the Lewis & Clark expedition to edgy art exhibits with View-Master. And in a world that still embraces lo-tech imaging artifacts like plastic toy cameras and artificial “retro” platforms like Instagram, it seems that VM could still be an instrument for at least some kinds of photo expression.
Or, as with our tearful farewell to Kodachrome a few years back, we might, at least, cast a fond backward glance at the little box that gave us the world.
Seven wonders at a time.