Front Row interview from Edinburgh – Brian May and Prof Roger Taylor


Brian May Prof Roger Taylor on George Washington Wilson Front Row 15082018

KIRSTY LANG: You’re listening to Front Row with me, Kirsty Lang – live from Edinburgh. And now to Brian May who I think it’s fair to say he’s a bit of a polymath

BRIAN MAY: Well you could [say that.]

KIRSTY: Apart from being the lead guitarist of Queen, you’ve got a PhD in Astrophysics, you are badger rights activist and you are one of the world’s foremost collectors of 3-D photography, which we’re going to talk about in a minute. I’ve got some of Brian’s special glasses what he gave me. Now not many people know this but Brian has a publishing company devoted to books with stereoscopic images and for those of you who are not familiar with this technique it’s about creating the illusion of depth that sort of 3-D – you could explain more in a moment.

BRIAN: Better, yeah.

KIRSTY: And so with each book you get a special pair of these glasses in the back that Brian’s developed and his latest publication is with Professor Roger Taylor who’s a photography historian and, no, not the drummer from Queen. [laughing] And this book is, it’s an illustrated biography of this really interesting mind of a man in the pioneering Victorian photographer called George Washington Wilson and Brian and Roger have just hot-footed it over here from the Edinburgh Book Festival. But Brian this is a little bit of an obscure hobby, isn’t it? I mean how did you get into stereoscopic photography?

BRIAN MAY: Yeah it seems obscure at first sight. Well I got into it the age of about 11 opening my Weetabix packet and finding a little card in it with two images on it tat looked like two little flat ordinary pictures but it said: “Send away one and sixpence and a packet top and we will send you your stereo viewer” so obviously I did that. You put the card in the viewer and, hey presto, suddenly instead of two little flat pictures you get a vista which looks completely real and in depth and stereoscopic. So I was hooked and I have been for the whole of my life. Entranced by this magic of 3-D.

KIRSTY: And it was very popular in i the mid 19th century wasn’t it?

BRIAN: Well it was invented in the mid 19th century. About 1850 a lot of it happened after it was discovered by by Wheatstone. It’s amazing that this never happened in the Renaissance. Nobody actually twigged the fact that we’ve got two eyes and our brains perform this miracle of stereopsis which gives us our depth perception and obviously was a huge advantage in our evolution. You can imagine, you know, how far away your predator is and how big it is, it’s obviously a great thing, but the magic was discovered in the 1850s. By the end of the 1850s there was a massive craze of people buying stereoscopic pictures which is the 3-D. It was actually only called 3-D in the 1950s when there was a resurgence of this stuff so 3-D has had a strange history.

KIRSTY: Now Roger, tell us about the subject of your book,“George Washington Wilson”, a Scotsman – a fascinating character. PROF

ROGER TAYLOR: Well Wilson belongs to that first generation of art photographers, trained as an artist and took up with photography. Photography only kind of came to the fore in the 1840s, so Wilson is the next generation along who comes to use it to talk about the nature of Scotland and Scottish landscape and he exports these all over Britain and is part of that whole tourist phenomena in the 1850s and 1860s.

KIRSTY: [indistinct]… He was the son of a crofter ,became a painter, painting miniatures and then he takes up photography and advertises his services taking “views and landscapes of gentleman’s seats”. [laughter]

ROGER: You’ve got to remember there was no such thing as a profession, as being a photographer. You had to create your own market. You had to create your own identity within that market and Wilson was very good at doing that.

KIRSTY: And he only became the Queen Victoria’s official photographer at Balmoral?

ROGER: He did indeed from a very early date. 1853 when they started the new Balmoral, he was commissioned to make the construction photographs, and then he started taking portraits of the Royal Family and so on and so forth. He took that famous or infamous photograph of Queen Victoria with John Brown. She’s sitting on a pony, and there is John Brown. W.hat’s not known is in fact that behind the horse cropped off is another keeper which is on the original photograph so this photograph has this other kind of life.

KIRSTY: So in a way he was a sort of celebrity photographer – one the first in that sense, I mean…

ROGER: Yeah.

KIRSTY: … Royal photographer. What interests me about your book though was the social history – the context in which Wilson was working at a time when mass tourism begins and his images and postcards of Scottish landscapes were particularly popular with visitors awed by Sir Walter Scott’s novels.

ROGER: Indeed. I mean you’ve got remember in the mid-Victorian period the people who were buying these stereo views – they come a little card about sort of so big. They come 3 by 5. These were expensive. They were two shillings each. Who could afford them? This is the educated upper and middle classes. These were people deeply immersed in Walter Scott and all things Scottish. These were the people who came to Scotland armed with a Black’s Guide to the Highlands, The Trossachs – and they went round and they stood in the places where they were told to go and view these wonderful scenes and in their heads they carried all the poetry. At home they put the view, the stereo view, in the viewer and they were able to be transported back to that spot, that moment.

KIRSTY: Now Brian, photography on the radio is not easy [laughter], so you’re going to have to describe some of this. I mean, so this is the book and Brian has published it but he’s also written a foreword and it’s full of the story of George Washington and but also lots of these these photographs and so you can look at them with this little thing. I have to say I struggled a bit/ I mean I didn’t have to do a lot of…

BRIAN: It takes a moment before you get the knack of it but then it kind of comes naturally. Yes it takes – it’s worth spending a moment just learning how to. You have to relax basically as most people tend to put the stereoscope into the viewer that you have in your hand. They put it in front of their eyes and then they kind of peer into as if you’re looking at an ant on the page but actually you’re not supposed to do that. You should just look through the viewer as if you’re looking through a pair of binoculars into – dreamily into the distance and it will happen. The magic will happen.

KIRSTY: So what are your favourite images – some of your favourite images in this book. Can you describe them please?

BRIAN: I love the one on the cover – a beautiful shot – and Wilson evolved this technique of taking pictures into the Sun.

KIRSTY: So let me describe that. Three men in a boat on a lake or a loch.

BRIAN: Three people in a boat, yes… what their gender is. We don’t like to talk about these days, do we? But he was a master at managing to get images of a landscape with the clouds, so that was unknown in those days because it was very hard to get a picture of a landscape which didn’t have the sky bleached out. So that’s one of my favourite images another one is of Ellen’s Isle which is taken through the foliage of an oak tree and he’s framed it so perfectly. It looks very nice just as a mono image on the page but in stereo it’s like you’re in that tree and you’re surrounded by these leaves and everything attached to the oak tree of which the boat is made so not the boat .- and the island – now I’m talking about a completely different picture. [laughing] There’s no editing on this programme, is there?

KIRSTY: No, no, no. It’s live, just as…

BRIAN: There’s another one where you’re looking at a warship, which is made of the oak but I love those things.

KIRSTY: But Roger, when we think of Victorian photography we often think of sort of formal, stiff portraits taken with long exchange exposure but some of these photographs, are real street photography. I see Princes Street in Edinburgh, full of carriages and people wandering around.

ROGER: Yeah. Wilson was one of the first people to actually conquer that whole problem of making sure it exposes . He modified his chemistry – modified his equipment – and he had a very deft way of making exposures, briefly, he took his Glengarry bonnet in his left hand and he was then go flip-flop and that was how he made his brief exposure. Hung this over the lenses and then flipping on and off and making an exposure.

KIRSTY: And Brian just finally, you’re not only a collector. You’ve used this stereoscopic technique yourself haven’t you taking photographs…

BRIAN: Absolutely, yes. I took a stereoscopic picture of you, didn’t I just now. You were thrilled – weren’t you?

KIRSTY: I was really excited actually.

BRIAN: Yeah – you can do it so easily with your own iPhone.

KIRSTY: It’s not often Brian May takes a picture of you … … It’s stereoscopic one.

BRIAN: Yeah, it’s very much with us yeah. All you need is an iPhone. You go click and then go a little bit over to one side and do another click and there’s a little app which will help you put them side-by-side and you then put them in your OWL.

KIRSTY: Brian May and Professor Taylor and all of my guests thank you very much. The book “George Washington Wilson” artist and photographer, is available now in a 3-D viewer.