The first exhibits to capture my attention when ‘The Origins of Photography in Salisbury, 1839-1913’ exhibition opened at Salisbury Museum in January were the stereophotographs and viewers (Fig 1).
This was because I was reminded of my own Vistascreen stereoviewer and stereocards, obtained free with Weetabix breakfast cereal during the 1960s (Fig 2).
Vistascreen was a system for viewing photographs or illustrations in 3D, which superseded and was similar in concept to the earlier Stereoview . The Vistascreen Co Ltd was formed in the UK in 1955. Although a competing View-Master system was already available at this time, the content of most of their ‘reels’ was of limited interest in the UK. View-Master ‘reels’ are thin cardboard discs containing seven pairs of small, transparent colour photographs on film, which were manufactured and sold by Sawyer’s (Fig 3). The components of each pair are viewed simultaneously, one by each eye, thus simulating binocular depth perception.
In Vistascreen, each card consists of two images, side-by-side, and taken from slightly different angle so that, when viewed together through a special viewer, a single stereoscopic image is produced. The Vistascreen stereoscope is a ‘lens stereoscope’ which consists of two simple magnifying lenses mounted with a separation equal to the average interpupillary distance of the human eyes (6.5 cm).
Most of the original sets of black and white Vistascreen photographs were taken by ex-RAF photographer Stanley Long using a 1920s Rollei Heidoscope stereo camera with a plate back. Picture cards were supplied in packs of 10 cards, and eventually almost 300 Vistascreen sets were produced. Most Vistascreen cards were sold as souvenirs at UK tourist attractions, but a small number of glamour photos were also available by mail order.
The original Vistascreen viewers were manufactured in ivory coloured plastic, with plastic lenses, and were designed to fold flat.
The Weetabix cereal company bought out Vistascreen in the 1960s, whereupon the viewers had the Weetabix logo embossed in gold on the viewer’s reverse (Fig 4).
Single cards were given away with Weetabix cereal in a promotion which lasted for several years and which featured six different sets of 25 cards; Working Dogs, Thrills, British Cars, British Birds, Animals and Our Pets. Viewers could be purchased by mail order directly from the Weetabix factory. The cards given away by Weetabix were of poorer quality than the original Vistascreen picture cards, which had a glossy, photographic finish.
I was interested to note that, recently (February 2018) a Weetabix 3D Vistascreen Viewer with 125 Stereo Cards was put up for sale on ebay for over £40 – including postage and packing.
In researching this article, I was interested to learn that Queen guitarist, Brian May, who has a pHD in Astrophysics from Imperial College, London, also has a long-standing interest in stereophotography, dating from the time when he himself collected Weetabix VistaScreen cards as a child. In an interview for the Daily Telegraph1 he commented, “I found it magical. I was in my own world with a stereoscope. It’s like having earphones on – you’re completely in contact with your subject matter.”
From collecting stereo cards May graduated into making his own, commenting, “I had an appetite for that stuff; so I took my two and sixpenny Woolworth’s camera and took two pictures of my bike. I stuck them on cardboard and put them in the Weetabix viewer and it worked.”
Stereoscopy works by replicating human vision using the phenomenon of parallax; the right eye sees a slightly different image to the left eye, but the brain fuses these together and constructs a 3D image. If one covers one eye, one will apparently still see in 3D, but this is, in fact, largely an illusion as the brain has adapted to use other depth cues such as shadows. If one closes off one eye, the loss of perspective does, however, render the judging of distance to be more difficult.
Stereography began to make an impact during the early 1850s, being demonstrated at the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace. During Victorian times stereography was a very accessible and popular form of entertainment; most middle-class homes would have had a stereo viewer and a stack of cards. It was also possible to hire a viewer for an evening, and to borrow cards from a library. The less affluent could see them at fairs whilst, at the other end of the social spectrum, Queen Victoria herself had several hundred cards. At the height of its popularity in the 1860s, thousands of stereo cards were produced and sold from the Oxford Street premises of the London Stereoscopic Company (LSC) which had a Royal Warrant. The majority of cards depicted built or natural wonders, such the pyramids, glaciers and the Crumlin Viaduct in Wales – but the market for sentimental tableaux and supernatural scenes was also large.
The London Stereoscopic Company was dissolved in 1922 but, in 2008, Brian May, together with a fellow enthusiast and photo-historian, Denis Pellerin, resurrected the company and hope one day to publish stereo cards again. Meanwhile, Pellerin is cataloguing and researching May’s collection, which is one of the biggest in Britain .