I was hooked completely – Stereo photography (travel to Hell with Brian May)


I sat down for a chat with Waterstones at the Cheltenham Literature Festival last Friday… this is what I said:

by Jen Tunney
© brianmay.com

I discovered stereoscopy, I think, due to Weetabix, because in those days all sorts of cereal companies used to give away toys for kids in the packets, which was great for kids.  I don’t know why it doesn’t happen now, but in Weetabix you used to get a little card with each packet, and it was a stereo card, so you get two little pictures of,  say, a lion, or a bus, or a train or something and they look very flat and ordinary, but you send away one and sixpence for your stereo viewer, and you put the card in the viewer and you look at the card and suddenly instead of a flat card, you’ve got a window that you feel like you could walk through and you could actually touch these things.

I was astounded.  I thought this was just the best magic I’ve ever seen. And I always remember thinking, “Well this is photography – what’s the use of having flat photography if you can have stereoscopic photography?” 

So I was hooked completely, and you know it’s never left me.  That kind of thrill of stereo photography’s been with me all my life, you know, and I still find it absolute – you know – an excitement every time two little pictures that are flat turn into a stereoscopic world.

I discovered pretty soon that stereo photography went back a very long way, in fact it goes back to the very dawn of photography itself, and the principle was discovered by Charles Wheatstone in the 1840s, before there were the first photographs. 

So these photographs – these Diableries – I discovered in my teenage years, going to Portobello Market and looking for things, you know.  These mysterious cards, framed in yellow mounts were of skeletons and devils doing mysterious things.  I couldn’t understand what it was about.  Some of it was funny.  Some of it was a bit sinister, and I was again, I was hooked, and I spent the next 40 years looking for these cards all around the world and eventually I was able to put a full set of the first 72 together. 

There’s actually 180 of them in all and I still don’t have them all.  We’re missing two pictures, but the other 178 are in this book and they’re all restored by my own hand, with a little help from friends sometimes, but my dream was to communicate these pictures to a new audience – to be a channel for these beautiful scenarios to be viewed in the 21st century, as they should be viewed in stereo – in proper 3D.

So there wasn’t a stereo viewer and I had to design and have this manufactured in Sunbury-upon-Thames in Middlesex and it’s a very useable Victorian stereoscope, if you like, and it focusses, which is unusual.  That really makes it look accessible to everyone no matter what kind of eyes you’ve got.  And it collapses.  It fits into the book’s structure, which is great, so every book that we sell there’s an OWL viewer in.

And what happens is, all these pictures are reproduced very faithfully in here [the book], having been through many hundreds of hours of PhotoShop to restore them, and you put your stereoscope on here [places on page] and you can view them in glorious stereo. Can you see that in here?  You probably can’t. 

Can you see? …   You can’t see them in stereo because unfortunately you’re not filming me in stereo, but this is the experience.  And time and time again I see people go “How can I do this?  What do I do?  I look through in here”, and they go “My God!  Wow!”, and they’re doing it, the same as I did.  They’re walking through.  They’re feeling they could touch these little models… skeletons… they were done on a table top, but in extraordinary detail.  Every one tells a different story.

In spite of this huge explosion in 3D films, the community which actually cares about stereoscopic images is still quite small.  It’s quite strange.  Obviously there’s a new generation of stereographers who’ve grown up and they’re very good.  I mean, James Cameron’s people, who are extraordinarily good in designing new bits of hardware and understanding artistically how to create in 3D.  But there’s a very small band of people who are dedicated to the history of the subject and I guess I’m one of them.  It’s probably a couple of hundred people who are really into it and who treasure these fantastic works of art from 150 years ago, which really are as vibrant as they ever were.

I actually love analogue.  I’m a sort of analogue geek really.  You know, and the same in sound, you know.  I love vinyl records, the whole technology of having a record with a groove, and you know, it’s a different sound.  It’s a different feeling.  There’s no doubt whatsoever.  And we’re analogue creatures.  So all that digital does is simulate analogue really.  It simulates it better and better and the higher sampling rate that you have and the greater number of bits you have.  But it’s never quite analogue, so I mean, I know I’m saying this, but this whole book was produced because of digital techniques applied to analogue images and it couldn’t have been done otherwise.  So, there’s a place for everything. 

But of course, once you print it back onto the page, you’re back to analogue, you know, and this is an analogue machine [OWL viewer].  And it’s extraordinarily good.  It’s actually still the best way of viewing stereo pictures because you get no cross talk, you know.  It does …. a 3D movie your brain is slightly struggling, ‘cos your right eye’s getting little bits of the left-hand image, and vice versa.  This, no.  You get total hundred percent separation and your brain is comfortable, and you’re – you really feel like you’re there. You feel like you’re where the stereo camera was, experiencing this.

We’re in a very grim situation, I think in this country, you know. There’s so much spin being directed at us by the Government to persuade us that they’re great people and they’re doing great things.  I think we’re in an appalling situation because more and more wildlife and animals in general are being treated as if they are worth nothing, and to me that is totally the wrong way for humanity to be going.  You know, we should be understanding.  We should be beginning to understand that human beings are not the only species on this planet and not necessarily the most important species on this planet.  This is ancient sort of anthropocentrism and, you know, a thousand years ago people realised that the Earth was not at the centre of the Universe, you know, and this is very significant.  We think we’re so important and we think that we can just trash the whole planet.  You know, global warming is only one part of it.  We are trashing every other species, every other thinking animal on this planet, and to my mind it’s a tragedy.

So, yes, we fight.  We’re very small.  We’re David against Goliath, and Goliath is the Government in bed with the National Farmers Union, in bed with the Countryside Alliance, which means the alliance for blood sports – in bed with most of the Press – so we’re up against something really difficult.  And they’re killing badgers at the moment.  They’re shooting them and a lot of them are crawling away wounded and dying a horrible death, and they’re telling us it’s humane.  They’re keeping everyone away.  It’s done in complete secrecy.  It’s outrageous.  They should never have been allowed, and compounding this is the tragedy that it won’t even help farmers.  It will not solve the problem of bovine TB.  There is no possible way that culling badgers can eradicate bovine TB.  The only thing which can is vaccination.

So we held a conference just a couple of days ago on vaccination of badgers – also of cows – and things actually look good, but the Government is not listening.  The Government is saying “Oh, it’s years away.  We can’t do it.  It’s too expensive”.  Well, we should be doing it and we should be starting to respect the animals around us.  Wild animals, domestic animals, cows, sheep, horses, pigs, chickens, and those animals that are being submitted to appalling pain in laboratories around the world.  You know, it’s a very big subject and I believe that the work has to change.

It’s just as William Wilberforce changed our view of other versions of our own species, you know.  It was no longer okay to have black people as slaves.  The same must happen, you know.  We no longer burn witches at the stake but we do abuse animals and it has to change.


© brianmay.com