Stereography and Japan

From Feudal Isolationism to Global Excellence

I stumbled upon these old colorized stereographs showing facets of mid-nineteenth century Japanese life. For those of us who aren't easily prone to motion sickness, a GIF rendering of a stereograph is an exciting way to experience an image so that it nearly seems like the three-dimensional sight we receive through our binocular vision -- it is especially so for me when the image reveals another realm or cultural era.

Stereography was brought into public use by Sir David Brewster of Scotland in 1851, as the lenticular stereoscope. Simply put, two photographs are made a small distance apart, and when viewed simultaneously will create a left and right eye effect. Brewster was an accomplished intellect who experimented with optics in a myriad of ways, also giving us the kaleidoscope. (Curiously, despite his scientific proclivities he was among the first to speak against the theory of evolution.)

Europe and America could not get enough of his novel invention and over the years millions of stereographs were produced with the latest photographic processes and equipment, beginning with the daguerreotype print. Even Queen Victoria couldn't hide her excitement upon stereography's mainstream debut at the Great Exhibition of 1851. (This first world's fair was held in London and housed in the incredible Crystal Palace, something akin to the world's largest greenhouse.)

The lenticular stereoscope followed Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy after he strong-armed feudal, isolationist Japan into opening their ports for trade in 1854. These colorized stereographs were thus created in this period when the Victorian world was freshly enamored with this visual experience, and when they were first becoming aware of a culture that had long been preserved from global influences.

The newfound might of the American navy exposed the weaknesses of the long-running Tokugawa shogunate, which was still holding power with its traditional tools of war. For better or worse, it was not long after these images were made that Japan began transforming into the modern imperial power that the United States Navy met again in the Second World War.


Today Japan is one of the most technologically sophisticated nations in the world, with a long history of excellence in precision optics engineering. They are also home to a few mobile phone manufacturers that are among the elite developers that continue to propel smartphone technology forward, and imaging capabilities are part of this evolution. 

Stereoscopic technology has continued into the Internet era, being utilized by phone manufacturers as early as 2002. With the arrival of ever more powerful processors, Samsung, LG, and HTC have all produced 3D-enabling smartphones.

There is not yet a large demand for these devices, and it remains to be seen if excitement for stereoscopic imagery in some form can be renewed. In its time it was the most remarkable way to convey an image, but everyday smartphones can now record in time-lapse or slow-motion, instantly deposit images into a virtual cloud, and can even generate augmented reality (I'm looking at you, Pokémon GO). With so many citizens of the world holding a powerful camera in the palm of their hand, there will be no paucity of images for future armchair anthropologists like myself to peruse. I hope to give them something worth looking at.