The stereoscope–something most of us might be more familiar with as the View-Master 3D–inspired debate over the truth of vision and what exactly it is that our eyes perceive from the world around us. Debuted in the early nineteenth century, the device brought scientists, photographers, and countless others into the discussion of optics, vision, and what it means to observe the world. In her article, From Phantom Image to Perfect Vision, Laura Burd Schiavo traces the stereograph’s influence on the argument that human eyes can observe objects as they exist, but her analysis of the device expands far beyond the stereoscope itself into a commentary on the supposed neutrality of media in the historical record and even scientific inquiry.
The mid-nineteenth century preoccupation with vision and optics affected much more than the scientists interested in the mechanics of sight. Artists and photographers alike began to assert their own versions of truth in vision, and the public had clear opinions on the debate. An emerging group of Impressionists (and their numerous progeny) painted in a style they imagined to be a more realistic representation of the world because it captured the process of seeing. Photographers of the age claimed to capture unmediated images from the real world–a product to which the public responded favorably.
The first stereoscopes, scientific and technical pieces of equipment, gave rise to doubt and uncertainty that the world existed as one perceived it. This new medium allowed for the manipulation of images to create something that did not really exist and, as a result, “challenged the equivalence of the exterior world and the retinal image.” Suddenly one could not trust that the image he perceived actually existed that way in nature.
After commercial photographers adapted the stereoscope to use their photos instead of basic drawings, they popularized, packaged, and displayed the newest technology at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition. This updated format and audience played directly into photography’s supposed complete accuracy of representation. This presentation even took the argument one step further, completely opposing the stereoscope’s technical origins and roots in questioning the concept of visual truth:
The parlor stereoscope and its views enacted a confidence in vision and in the transparency between the object and its representation.
Schiavo examines the stereoscope’s transition from obscure technical tool to popular parlor toy in light of its changing meaning to question the neutrality of new media in the historical record. She argues that as mediums such as these become pervasive cultural elements with their own invested meanings, they can no longer act as “technologies through which empirical truths are revealed.” While well-documented in the case of the stereoscope, I’m not quite sure how applicable this is to (my very inadequate conception of what is) contemporary new media. I’m interested to see if this kind of analysis becomes more valuable as the semester continues and we discuss other aspects of new media.