For this essay, my professor asked us to choose a 19th century optical toy and discuss its relevance to animator Pierre Hébert’s essay, “Cinema, Animation and the Other Arts: An Unanswered Question.” I chose to talk about the Holmes stereoscope. Most of the images herein are stills of Pierre Hébert’s various animated works.
In his 1859 article in The Atlantic, Oliver Wendell Holmes details the inner workings of his stereoscope. He discusses the process by which a photograph or a daguerreotype is created. In either case, he describes that the crown-glass or copper sheet (respectively) undergoes treatment with bromine, iodine, and silver compounds. These chemically-coated surfaces are then placed into a camera. Once the scene is set, these surfaces are exposed to light for approximately three seconds. In the case of the photograph, a negative image is produced through this process. The glass must then transfer its contents to a piece of paper covered in silver nitrate to generate a positive image.
It is important to note that Holmes specifically describes this as the process of capturing what he refers to as “a perfect harmonious affirmation of the realities of Nature.” Through the process of photography, he believes what we perceive as reality has literally been conferred onto photographs and daguerreotypes. Holmes calls these images “a copy of Nature in all her sweet gradations and harmonies and contrasts.” This is an important statement which coincides with Pierre Hébert’s contrast of animation and cinema.
According to director Pierre Hébert in his transcribed speech Cinema, Animation and the Other Arts: An Unanswered Question, “distinctions between specific arts has become volatile and unstable.” He suggests that the emergence of new technologies has confused the lines between one art form and another. With the advent of digital technology in particular, he suggests that media has the potential to mix more than ever before. Still, he does not believe in “the fusion of the arts,” as they maintain their separate identities even when used in combination with one another. Instead, he suggests that it is more useful to analyze the differences and relationships between different art forms.
Specifically, Hébert talks about the “volatile” connection between cinema and animation. He states that the idea of a well-defined “corporatist” distinction between the two forms of motion picture is inherently incorrect. He says that this view limits animation from realizing its aesthetic potential. As a counterpoint to the corporatist model, Hébert claims that animation is tied to cinema, but is also unique in how it brings “cinema back to the moment just prior the cinema’s very existence.” He says that animation has the power to illuminate the “black box” in which the magic of perceived motion occurs, revealing to the viewer what cinema tries to hide in favor of realism.
Yet Oliver Holmes, in an effort to capture the true essence of nature and reality onto photographs and daguerrotypes, has actually opened that black box once again. The stereoscope itself made the viewer aware of how the technology of the image worked. In that way, Holmes’s optical toy can be used to move away from the precepts of cinema in favor of a perspective reminiscent of Hébert’s definition of animation.
In his article, Holmes explains human depth perception. He talks about the need for two eyes to truly “tell whether an object is solid” as opposed to a flat surface. In order to understand that one object has three dimensions, two images enter the brain through either eye, and the brain must process these offset views into one, cohesive picture. This concept becomes important to Holmes, as depth is a critical component of how we interact with the world.
In an effort to replicate this process artificially, Holmes articulates the idea of juxtaposing two offset images and then having them “run together as we have seen our two views of a natural object do.” This is the idea of stereoscopy. By using a double camera, two pictures can be taken simultaneously onto either photographs or daguerreotypes. These two cameras expose the same view from slightly offset positions, yielding a left and right-eye pair of images called a stereograph.
Holmes then asks how the mind might make these two pictures “slide into each other… as in natural vision, that we may see them as one.” Here, Holmes is still attempting to achieve some form of realism by taking two-dimensional images and turning them into one three-dimensional photograph or daguerreotype. But what he is describing is precisely what Hébert says is endemic to animation. He is opening the black box of his technology, and pointing directly to how our minds are processing one phenomenon (viewing a flat surface) and transforming it into another (an image with perceptible planar depth).