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Recreating 19th-Century Stereography for a Scholarly Public

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Tiffany Chan

on 30 March 2015

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Transcript of Recreating 19th-Century Stereography for a Scholarly Public

Introduction
Pop-up Annotations
Animated GIFs
19th-century stereography was often seen as a photographic truth-teller, replicating human vision and educating their audience about the external world it signified. The annotations provide information about socio-historical context, the image itself, the context for its use (form/medium), and possible connections to current events. These annotations expose the ways in which stereography— though considered inherently truthful in the 19th century ("the camera doesn't lie")—functioned as a mediated, artistic representation. The annotations provide context of which a 19th-century user, but not a modern one, would be aware. But they also critically examine the perspectives, both past and present, that affect(ed) interpretation.

The pop-ups allow for multiple reading experiences through interaction. Since they are click-activated, users may only read those annotations that interest them—or never read any textual content at all if they are only interested in the stereocards' aesthetic qualities. The pop-ups can be collapsed, dragged or resized to allow users to view the text side-by-side with particular parts of the image. The "Show/Hide Icons" button also allows a user to turn the context icons off and free view the stereocard without interruption.

Through a stereoscope, a 19th-century audience would have seen stereography in 3D as originally intended. This experience is generally inaccessible to most people, who do not have ready access to a stereoscope and/or cannot "free view" a stereo-image. Using Patrick Feaster's method [2], animated GIFs make a 3D experience more widely accessible to a modern audience. However, this method creates differences: the stereoGIFs have blurry edges and can have other unintended idiosyncrasies. For example, the stereograph of the Full Moon, as a stereoGIF, appears to rotate rather than be a stable sphere (as seen through a stereoscope). Most noticeably, because its illusion of depth relies on different visual cues, the stereoGIF creates a moving scene while the stereoscope does not.

Should digitization seek to restore or reclaim the past? Rather than "fail" to perfectly recreate the original, one can see remediation in terms of relations between different forms that illuminate both past and present cultural perspectives (Sayers n.p.). The computer screen—the same device that can never reproduce the immersive interaction of the stereoscope—makes 3D images accessible to a new mass audience. The 19th century fascination with 3D media survives in modern-day animated GIFS, 3D films, and popular photogrammetry.

By Tiffany Chan
The Stereocard as (Digital) Object
Recreating 19th-Century Stereography for a Scholarly Public
This project is an online, interactive exhibit of a small subset of the stereocards collection in the W.D. Jordan Special Collections Library at Queen's University. Stereocards were (about postcard-sized) cards with 2 stereoscopic photographs meant to imitate the separate images that each eye receives. When seen through a stereoscopic viewer, the images coalesce into a single, 3D image. The project's features include animated GIFs, which approximate the 3D effect of stereophotography. There are also annotations for each stereocard, which provide socio-historical context about its form and content.

Central to this project is the hybrid role of an "archivist-researcher." [1] My project engages with "the archive" as both the (digital) storage of physical objects and as an ideological and conceptual space that preserves and transmits "an official record of the past" (Voss and Werner i). As a research object, my project is unlike a traditional library archive in that it privileges interpretation over volume, retrievability, and searchability—a decision reflected in its scope and content.
My project's interface prompts the user to consider the stereocard as tied to a real, physical object in ways that current stereocard archives do not do. For example, current stereocard archives offer images of the front only. However, the backs of stereocards often have printed text that affect interpretation. Furthermore, the card itself—as an object— is important since it represents the form in which stereographs were circulated and commodified, becoming the first mass medium.

In order to render the digital object closer to its physical counterpart, the flipping animation and drop shadow give the illusion of movement, volume, and a holistic object in 3D space. This is a fundamentally different experience than simply clicking between thumbnails to see the front and back. To strengthen the tie between the digital stereocard and the physical one it signifies, my project includes links to the metadata record for each stereocard. It also includes the Queen's Library Catalogue entry needed to request to view the stereocards in Special Collections.

The Exhibit as "Edutainment"
Drawing on other popular forms of "edutainment" (e.g. PBS Idea Channel, Crash Course), my virtual exhibit likewise seeks to engage and entertain its audience while organically promoting further exploration, discussion and research. Similar to more traditionally academic works, edutainment can still reference, summarize and apply academic concepts in interesting and engaging ways (consider, for example, Mike Rugnetta's discussion of Taylor Swift in conversation with Hélène Cixous' "The Laugh of the Medusa" [3]). My project likewise seeks to incorporate academic perspectives while communicating in a multimodal format that is accessible, engaging and familiar to the general public.

Furthermore, the annotative pop-ups include citations, as well as links to materials cited where they are available online or through the Queen's University library catalogue. While this ensures my research follows conventions and standards for an academic audience, it also represents knowledge as "an interactive critical network" (Rorabaugh and Stommel n.p.). In this way, my project encourages active engagement with the project and library materials, as well as further research into a topic.

In this way, edutainment and New Media offer fruitful grounds for multimodal research. Even deceptively simple things, such as hyperlinked citations, hold implications for the ways we think about, communicate and represent knowledge. New Media allows us to create knowledge that is interconnected, intertextual, and which blurs the boundaries between academic and non-academic modes.
Conclusion
Traditional digital archives of stereocards, a 19th- and early 20th-century form of early photography, exist as 2D scans of the fronts of stereocards only. Though these archives make large numbers of them easily accessible, retrievable, and searchable, they lack the informed, interpretive guidance that users unfamiliar with such materials might expect. Liu, speaking to this missed opportunity, argues that digital humanists are "ideally positioned to create, adapt, and disseminate new methods for communicating between the humanities and the public" and should "create technologies...[that] organically generate [humanities] advocacy in the form of publicly meaningful representations of the humanities" (n.p) . My virtual exhibit addresses this gap by contextualizing and interpreting the stereocards while organically promoting humanities research. Furthermore, my project disturbs the popular assumption that new media seeks, or should seek, to uncritically reproduce the experience of past media. Rather, it offers new possibilities for multimodal, public-facing scholarship and imagines what new ways of talking about new media's relationship to old media might be needed.
Notes and Works Cited
[1] This term comes from Neal, Bridgman and McElroy -- though I think I am interpreting it differently here.

[2] See Feaster's blog: https://griffonagedotcom.wordpress.com/2014/02/08/historical-stereoviews-as-tweened-animated-gifs/

Liu, Alan. "Where Is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?" Debates in the Digital Humanities. Web. 02 Mar. 2015. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/20

Voss and Werner. "Towards a Poetics of the Archive: Introduction." Studies in the Literary Imagination. 32:1 (1999): i-viii.
http://gateway.proquest.com/openurl?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2003&xri:pqil:res_ver=0.2&res_id=xri:lion&rft_id=xri:lion:ft:abell:R01609335:0

Rorabaugh and Stommel. "The Four Noble Virtues of Digital Media Citation." Hybrid Pedagogy. Web. 02 Mar. 2015. http://www.hybridpedagogy.com/journal/the-four-noble-virtues-of-digital-media-citation/

Sayers, Jentery. "The Relevance of Remaking." MakerLab in the Humanities. MakerLab. 24 Nov. 2014. Web. 5 Mar. 2015.
http://maker.uvic.ca/remaking/
Interface Design and Different Ways of Thinking About Stereocards: http://www.hastac.org/blogs/tiffany-chan/2014/11/02/interface-design-and-different-ways-thinking-about-stereocards
On Contextualizing 19th-century Stereocards and Potential Biases: http://www.hastac.org/blogs/tiffany-chan/2014/11/16/contextualizing-19th-century-stereocards-and-potential-biases
The Technical Challenges of Turning Stereographs into Animated GIFs: http://www.hastac.org/blogs/tiffany-chan/2014/11/16/contextualizing-19th-century-stereocards-and-potential-biases
Visit the Interactive Exhibit: http://library.queensu.ca/virtual-exhibits/stereoscopic/
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