Holograms of history

NB. This post contains large image files, and may be difficult to view on an older or slower computer.

Our visual access to the past is highly influenced by the imaging techniques available at different stages of history. And, since a visual imagination is an important tool in conceptualizing the lived experience of the past, we tend to accumulate a picture of the past which not only looks different from today in terms of its fashions, styles, and architectures, but, more importantly, in the actual character of vision itself. Or, in other terms: the 1960s looked like off-saturated Kodakchrome; the Second World War looked like high-contrast black-and-white; the nineteenth century looked like daguerrotypes; and the twelfth century looked like Byzantine icons.

Which is why, despite the fact that human ocular function has not appreciably changed in the last five thousand years, it is somewhat startling to see something like the Prokudin-Gorskii Collection of color photographs from early twentieth-century Russia. Upon viewing the images, it’s hard not to be struck by the obvious realization Huh, people back then really did see in color!

Not only did people see in color, but they saw in three dimensions as well. In real life, most people did not spend their day fixedly staring forwards for a long-exposure photograph. Since that’s mostly what we see from that period, it’s not surprising that we imagine life that way. But three-dimensional visual reproduction did exist, in the form of stereograph cards. Most people have probably seen a stereograph card, but few have probably ever seen one properly inserted into a stereograph viewer. It occurred to me that the depth of the images could be simulated by animating the two perspectives back and forth with each other, using essentially the same trick that’s used on bookmarks and children’s Valentine cards to create holographic animations. So, with a little Photoshop tweening, and the rich storehouse of stereograph cards available at the Library of Congress, I put together some historical holograms.

The results are, I think, quite striking. Posed scenes all at once jump to life with a depth that makes you realize that, if you were dropped down into these places, it might take you a few minutes to realize that you were no longer in the present day.

“The shattered remains of Russian heroes who were killed near 203 Metre Hill, Port Arthur”. New York: Underwood & Underwood, 12 December 1905. Library of Congress.

“Little tea pickers, who sang for President Roosevelt, Pinehurst Tea Farm, Summerville, S.C.” New York: Underwood & Underwood, 21 May 1902. Library of Congress.

“Skeleton Room, National Museum, Washington, D.C.” North Bennington, Vermont: H.C. White & Co., 16 Jan 1900. Library of Congress.

“On the drill grounds at Camp Chicamauga”. Meadville, Pennsylvania: Standard Scenic Company, ca. 1906. Library of Congress.

“Branding the calves: A busy day on the Paloduro Ranch, Paloduro, Texas, U.S.A.” Meadville, Pennsylvania: Keystone View Company, ca. 1905. Library of Congress.