Looking Through the Stereoscope: Visual Discipline, Optical Reality, and Colonialism

Eden Stephanson

           In “Photography’s Discursive Spaces,” Rosalind Krauss cites the stereoscope as an example of how a photograph’s specific mode of exhibition sets the conditions for how an observer interacts with its content. Krauss describes stereographic space as “perspectival space raised to a higher power” and “[an] experience of deep recession” that is “inescapable” (314). This mystic language used by Krauss to describe the stereograph emphasizes the medium’s physio-optical transcendence of time and space (314). It was through these phenomenological descriptions of the stereoscope that I first learned of the device and became interested in trying it for myself. Contemporary accounts of the stereoscope describe looking through the stereoscope as a hypnotic, almost mystical experience. How could a centuries-old analog apparatus act on its user in such a way as to warrant such phantasmagorical descriptions?

           The stereoscope, invented by Charles Wheatstone in 1838, was one of several optical devices that emerged from physiological optics research in the early nineteenth century (Crary 118–20). Before this period, formulations of human vision in the West were the subject of philosophy and perception was understood per the metaphor of a camera obscura: light projected itself within the darkroom of the mind through the pinhole aperture of the retina (Crary 27–30). It was not until physiological optics dominated discourse surrounding human vision that the conditions of possibility for the stereoscope were set. In this way, I argue that the development of the stereoscope mirrors the development of the phonograph. As described by Friedrich Kittler in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, the invention of Edison’s phonograph marks a transition from a logic to a physics of sound in scientific discourse. Wheatstone invented his stereoscope while researching binocular disparity, the difference in the images seen by the eyes that allow for depth perception (Crary 119). The stereoscope served as a medial a priori to understanding human perception; it was only through the apparatus that humans discovered the phenomenon of binocular parallax (Crary 118–20). The stereoscope moved beyond the field of scientific research to become a mass medium in the latter half of the nineteenth century due to the proliferation of mechanized printing techniques (Krauss 113) and the invention of a portable model by Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1861.

           I procured my stereoscope—a Holmes model—and a set of thirty stereographs, or ‘stereoviews,’ on eBay; both produced in the early twentieth century according to their sellers. While the major producers of stereoviews usually sold them in series that would construct a narrative as the observer switched from card to card (Stakelon 408), my set of views was a seemingly random assortment of sights from around the world. Unfortunately, this means I could not engage with the stereoscope as many contemporary observers likely would have. The most common uses of the stereoscope in nineteenth century bourgeois households, aside from entertainment, as a form of ‘virtual travel’ (Stakelon 409), was as a normative pedagogical tool of visual education about the world (Cain 276). In both instances, the serial presentation of stereoviews was central to the construction of a narrative. Even with no discernable order to my stereoviews, while observing them with my stereoscope, they began to tell a distinct story: one of racial hierarchy and colonial gaze. Building on these observations, I argue that the optical experience afforded by the stereoscope makes the device particularly suited to the construction of a colonial imaginary.

Fig. 1. An example of the colonial imagery depicted in my collection of stereographs; “85. Cotton Plantation Scene,” ca. 1920.

           From black workers picking cotton in the South (Fig. 1) to Egyptian laborers unearthing ancient artifacts for colonial archaeologists, the way colonized peoples are represented in the set of stereoviews I received is quite consistent. There is a disparity between the representation of Euro-American subjects and colonized subjects. Views of the United States frequently center monumental infrastructure and people at leisure, all shot from far away as if to emphasize the massive scale of American progress (Fig. 2). On the contrary, views of colonized regions center exoticized people and the production of commodities for Western consumption. These images were shot from close range so the photographs look as though they could have been taken anywhere (Fig. 3). Within the physical confines of the stereoscope, whose mask isolated me from my surroundings, I was repeatedly confronted with violent colonial imagery. The connection between the stereoscope and colonialism seemed obvious, but how exactly did the specific affordances of the stereoscope—the particular way it operates on the observer—contribute to the proliferation of the colonial order in the past, specifically between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?

Fig. 2. This stereoview of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair illustrates the far-off point-of-view and monumental infrastructure characteristic of stereographs of North America and Europe. “31. Festival Hall, World’s Fair, St. Louis”, ca. 1904.

Fig. 3. In contrast, this stereoview of people begging on the streets of Cairo is characteristic of the close-up ethnographic representations of colonized people. “Lepers Begging in Old Cairo,” ca. 1900.

           The stereoscope extends pictorial space beyond its limits by creating an illusion of depth that divides the picture into a series of distinct planes—foreground, middle ground, and background. For the stereoscopic effect to work, the viewer is required to constantly recalibrate their eye’s focus, making it impossible to view the entire image simultaneously. In this way, the eye is encouraged to wander around the image, giving an impression of movement between the layers of the visual environment created by the stereoview akin to the experience of moving through physical space. The movement of the eye seems to replace the movement of the foot, allowing for a purely visual experience of space. Contemporary theorists believed this visual motion to be a more direct way of interacting with the world. Hermann von Helmholtz, a theorist of physiological optics in the nineteenth century, wrote of the stereoscope’s reality effects in 1850:

These stereoscopic photographs are so true to nature and so lifelike in their portrayal of material things, that after viewing such a picture and recognizing in it some object … we get the impression, when we actually do see the object, that we have already seen the object and are more or less familiar with it (quoted in Crary 124).

For Helmholtz, Holmes, and other nineteenth century thinkers, the stereoscope allowed for more “direct knowledge” of the world by separating the observer from their other senses, which they considered to be distractions from direct access to “reality” (Stakelon 410–11). In Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary cites these contemporary accounts to demonstrate how, as the stereoscope became a mass medium, the material construction of the device began to structure the way humans see and understand the world. The way of seeing demanded by the stereoscope is defined by isolation from the environment, a primacy of vision, and a dematerialization of the subject. This mode of opticality extended beyond the apparatus to structure the way the world was observed and classified, defining a form of “objective vision.” The stereoscope was granted a privileged status in demarcating the limits of human vision and validating a specific perspective on the world, and as such, it played a significant role in shaping the nineteenth century visual economy.

           I use the term ‘visual economy’ intentionally here because the dematerialized, direct vision associated with the stereoscope was a major theme in its marketing (Fig. 4). As Bill Brown states in “Materiality,” “both money and photography are ‘magical forms that establish a new set of abstract relations between individuals and things’” (53). Within the context of the stereoscope, the photographic form and commodity form collide: the dematerialization of the world afforded by the invention of photography allowed for the commodification of the world as images. The stereoscope became a way to project a visual order onto the world. Collective psychologists championed the stereoscope as a vehicle for making sense of an increasingly complex modern world by condensing it into “a concise and coherent set of mental images,” what psychologist Walter Lippmann dubbed “stereotypes” (Cain 288–89). The device was also taken up by American educational reformers, who argued the stereoscope was perfectly suited to the construction of a standardized understanding of the world for young eyes in the geography classroom (Cain 287). The stereoscope became a way of ordering the world around colonial ideologies, reducing colonized peoples and cultures to stereotypes for the colonial gaze, and training the public to “see, act, and think in accordance with prevailing beliefs” (Cain 277).

Fig. 4. An advertisement for the Underwood Stereograph Travel System puts forward the stereoscope as a method of virtual travel, bringing the viewer within arm’s reach of colonized countries; Underwood Stereograph Travel System Advert, c. 1907 (taken from Gurevitch 245).

            In this sense, the colonial power of the stereoscope can be understood in line with Timothy Mitchell’s formulation of the “exhibitionary order” (Mitchell 410). According to Mitchell, the nineteenth century exhibition space was an effective colonial tool because in claiming to represent an external reality through reality effects, it created a dichotomy in the spectator’s mind between the enclosed and highly mediated exhibition space and the external reality of the world. The collapse of reality and exhibition obscures the fact that the exhibition’s external referent does not exist and is itself a construction of the colonial imaginary. Just like the exhibition space, the nineteenth century stereoscope seemed to faithfully represent an external reality through its illusion of depth, but its reality effects masked the artificiality of the worldview it represented. Stereoviews of colonized people were often staged for the colonial gaze, and even in instances where they were not, the order in which the views were presented emphasized the otherness of the colonial subject (Stakelon 418–19). By presenting colonized people as static objects for colonial gaze, these stereoviews encouraged colonial observers looking through the stereoscope to objectify and essentialize colonized peoples as an Other, comparing decontextualized snapshots of colonized peoples to a curated image of a progressive and civilized West. The rhetoric surrounding the stereoscope during the nineteenth century thus reasserts the colonial order by positioning the device as an objective way of understanding the world.

            To look through the stereoscope today is to relieve it of its status as an obsolete historical object and experience time and space as a nineteenth century observer might have. Although countless monumental shifts in human society have occurred since its manufacture, the way the apparatus functions—the way it operates on the observer—has not changed. Looking through the stereoscope, one discovers a short circuit between the present and the past. The value of such a short circuit, of returning to the stereoscope—not only through historical accounts but through its physical operation—may lie in the demonstration of the subtle ways in which media work us over. More specifically, this study indicates how these media operations can reassert the dominant ideologies of their specific place in history. Revisiting the stereoscope from the privileged vantage point of the present allows us to understand how colonial bias guided a seemingly objective way of interacting visually with the exterior world. But what about contemporary media technologies? As Ruha Benjamin demonstrates in Race After Technology, despite similar claims to objectivity, systemic bias persists in the codes and algorithms that structure the information age. In one example, Benjamin cites an issue with Google Images which came to light in 2016. When users searched the phrase “three Black teenagers,” they would be presented with criminal mugshots; in contrast, when they searched the phrase “three white teenagers,” they would be presented with photographs of smiling, cheerful youths (Benjamin 93–4). If the stereoscope played a central role in the nineteenth century visual economy, Google Images plays a central role in the visual economy today. However, there is a key difference between the stereoscope and digital media technologies: while the mechanisms of the stereoscope are easily accessible—boiling down to a pair of lenses—the mechanisms that underpin digital media are often locked behind proprietary algorithms and black boxes. Returning to the archive, then, may serve to counteract idealistic narratives of new media as somehow unbiased, democratizing or posthumanist.  This necessary return draws attention to the ways in which media technologies, always operating within social systems, have historically extended and consolidated structural injustices.

This academic essay is licensed under Creative Commons License CC-BY-NC 4.0.


Benjamin, Ruha. Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, Polity Press, 2019. 

Brown, Bill, et al. “Materiality.” Critical Terms for Media Studies, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2010, pp. 49–63. 

Cain, Victoria E. M. “Seeing the World: Media and Vision in US Geography Classrooms, 1890–1930.” Early Popular Visual Culture, vol. 13, no. 4, 2016, pp. 276–292. https://doi.org/10.1080/17460654.2015.1111591

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century, MIT Press, 1990.

Ernst, Wolfgang. “Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus the History and Narrative of Media History.” Digital Memory and the Archive, edited by Jussi Parikka, University of Minnesota Press, 2013, pp. 55–73. 

Foucault, Michel. “Archaeology of Knowledge.” Routledge eBooks, 2nd ed., Routledge, London, UK, 2002, https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203604168.

Gurevitch, Leon. “The Birth of a Stereoscopic Nation: Hollywood, Digital Empire and the Cybernetic Attraction.” Animation, vol. 7, no. 3, 2012, pp. 239–258. https://doi.org/10.1177/1746847712456255

Kittler, Friedrich. “Gramophone.” Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, Stanford University Press, 1999, pp. 21–29. 

Krauss, Rosalind. “Photography’s Discursive Spaces: Landscape/View.” Art Journal, vol. 42, no. 4, 1982, pp. 311-319.

Mitchell, Timothy. “Orientalism and the Exhibitionary Order.” The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, ed. Donald Preziosi, Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 409–423. 

Stakelon, Pauline. “Travel Through the Stereoscope: Movement and Narrative in Topological Stereoview Collections of Europe.” Media History, vol. 16, no. 4, 2010, pp. 407–422. https://doi.org/10.1080/13688804.2010.507476.

Vol. 4 (2023)