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Old becomes new: California State Library digitizes 3-D images from 1800s

Matt Bartok holds a stereo card featuring pictures of Half Dome shot from Glacier Point in Yosemite during the late 19th century. State Library 3-D photo experts are in the midst of converting 15,000 old stereo card photographs into digital files. They work largely on giant computer screens where they’re converting the old 19th-century images for viewing by 21st-century audiences.
Matt Bartok holds a stereo card featuring pictures of Half Dome shot from Glacier Point in Yosemite during the late 19th century. State Library 3-D photo experts are in the midst of converting 15,000 old stereo card photographs into digital files. They work largely on giant computer screens where they’re converting the old 19th-century images for viewing by 21st-century audiences. rpench@sacbee.com

They’re coming out of the vault and into the digital age. In slow but meticulous work at the California State Library in downtown Sacramento, more than 10,000 old sepia-toned 3-D photos – most from the 1800s – are being dusted off and converted to computer-ready images.

Officially known as stereoscopic photos, they were a popular turn-of-the-century parlor activity, shared like postcards and viewed through hand-held viewers that turned the side-by-side double photos into a single 3-D image.

For decades, thousands of the cardboard photos have been sitting in the state library’s archives, viewable only by appointment. Now, they’re being uploaded to a photo sharing site that’s making them available to anyone anywhere.

“It’s a wonderful treasure trove of California that not many people have ever been able to see. Now they’re available for not just California, but for anyone all over the world,” said Jarrid Keller, spokesman for the library’s information technology bureau.

Taken by both professional and amateur photographers, the photos subjects ranged from majestic outdoor settings like Yosemite’s Half Dome to news-style photos of major events such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. They also captured everyday portraits of Americans at work and play, from Gold Rush miners to tourists visiting “Toyland” at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

The heyday of stereoscopic photos was roughly between the 1870s and the 1920s. Printed on cardboard from glass negatives, the images were sold by photography studios, by door-to-door salesmen or from catalogs like Sears, Roebuck & Co.

“Back then, people would have hundreds of these cards at home. It would be their television of the day,” said Vincent Beiderbecke, a state library digital specialist, who’s been working on the project for two years.

He and another digital specialist, Matt Bartok, scan the double images and upload them to a 3-D sharing website, www.phereo.com/CaliforniaStateLibrary. As of now, they have 93 black-and-white photos on the site but hope to have 200 uploaded by year’s end. Each can be viewed in several formats, including an anaglyph version that requires the red-and-blue cardboard glasses for the full 3-D effect and a “wiggle” format where the people and places appear to move.

Those already posted range from images of horse-drawn wagons trudging up Donner Pass, turn-of-the-century tourists posing before Yosemite Falls, and a locomotive stopped at the foot of dirt-lined J Street in Old Sacramento, circa 1865. Not all of them are dated or captioned.

Today, one of the biggest collections of stereoscopic images is at the California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside, which has more than 250,000 original glass negatives and 100,000 paper prints, dating between 1860 and 1950.

Mead Kibbey, a longtime State Library patron who ran the Black Diamond lumber company in Sacramento, was instrumental in bringing that massive collection, which had been in private hands in Pennsylvania, to California.

From his own personal collection, he also donated about 2,000 stereoscopic images to the State Library. They include 480 stereoscopic images by 19th-century photographer Alfred Hart, who was the official photographer for the Central Pacific Railroad in the late 1860s. Hart, who owned a photography studio on J Street in downtown Sacramento, captured the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad’s western stretch, from Sacramento to Promontory, Utah, as well as the state Capitol’s early construction.

“For teaching history to kids, this is dynamite,” said Kibbey. “Now it’s out there so the whole world can look at it.”

Converting the cardboard photos to digital has another goal: preservation. Until now, every time someone made an appointment to view them, the negatives and prints were pulled out and handled, exposing them to damage. “It put stress on the collection. They had to be handled individually every time,” said Beiderbecke. “This time we only touch them once.”

Typically, a 3-D photo is created by taking the same image with two separate lenses about 2.5 inches apart, roughly the distance between your eyes. When the two side-by-side images are aligned and viewed through 3-D glasses or a 3-D viewer, they turn a flat image into one that appears to be three-dimensional.

Although it’s an old form of photography, 3-D has attracted a modern-day following among photography aficionados. Some have posted their own color 3-D photos to the phereo.com website.

At the state library, most of the digitized images are shown online in their original, untouched form. “Our job is not here to be photo retouchers; we’re not doing Photoshop magic,” said the 26-year-old Beiderbecke, who has a degree in photography from California State University, Sacramento. “We try to be true to the original image, without altering it.”

If an image needs to be retouched, say one with a damaged corner or hole that would create ghost images, Beiderbecke said the photo is uploaded twice, to show both the original and edited versions.

As he and Bartok continue the process of getting 10,000 photos converted to digital, the State Library is working to get glimpses of its 3-D photo collection in front of the public. During this summer’s California State Fair, the library had an exhibit where the public could view some of the collection’s photographs. Next spring, the library is planning to host a special 3-D photography show during one of its monthly “A Night at the State Library” events.

“Who would’ve thought we’d be doing 3-D in a library?” said library spokesman Keller. “It’s giving the public an opportunity to explore California history from a different perspective … Everything old is new again.”

Call The Bee’s Claudia Buck, (916) 321-1968.

Viewing history of 3-D photos and film

1838: English scientist and inventor Sir Charles Wheatstone produces the first stereoscopic viewer. Created before widespread use of 3-D photography, ituses a bulky tabletop device with mirrors to create a three-dimensional view of painted drawings.

1861: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., an American physician, poet and author, invents the first hand-held viewer to hold 3-D stereoscopic cards. It becomes the norm for viewers.

1939: At the New York World’s Fair, the first plastic View-Master is introduced, using rounded cardboard reels of 3-D images, primarily to show postcard-style views. Created by a Portland, Ore., company, the first View-Masters are originally sold in gift shops and photography stores.

1950s: The first 3-D color movie, “Bwana Devil,” based on true stories of man-eating lions in Africa, debuts in 1952. Dozens of 3-D films are produced in the next few decades, but they wane in popularity.

Today: New technologies in filmmaking spark a rebirth in 3-D movies in the mid-1980s, particularly with the opening of IMAX big-screen theaters. More recently, mainstream movies that are also produced in 3-D formats, like “The Avengers” and “Kung Fu Panda,” struggle to draw large audiences.

Source: Bee research

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