The nineteenth century was filled with new technologies that offered opportunities for making money. One of those, photography, began in mid-century and rapidly expanded. By the end of the century, most Michigan towns had at least one commercial photographer. Many early Michigan photographers pursued that business part-time while holding full-time jobs in areas such as optometry, pharmacy, undertaking, or merchantry.
Early ads for photographers often announced they were "portrait and landscape" artists, while a few claimed they were publishers of "stereoscopic views."
Stereo photography gives the illusion of depth in a two-dimensional image by presenting a slightly different image to each eye. The two images are then combined by the brain and perceived as three-dimensional.
The earliest Michigan photographers made daguerreotypes, images on metal, or ambrotypes, images on glass. Both processes were one of a kind and expensive. The development of negative photography--first with wet plates and later dry--dramatically changed the medium. Glass negatives made it possible to create multiple copies of an image, but more important, they allowed photographers to produce those images cheaply.
Daguerreotype and ambrotype stereo images are not common today. That is not true of stereo images made from negative photography. Today, stereo images of Michigan topics can be found in libraries, museums, and antique stores around the state and country.
Generally, early Michigan stereo cards contained two rectangular images. Later cards had a curved top. The earliest stereo cards seldom have any printing on either side of the cardboard mount--but soon, names began appearing on the card front, as did advertising on card backs.
Based on observations of surviving cards, most stereo images of the time were outdoor scenes. Common stereo-card images are of logging operations in Michigan, fishing, life on Mackinac Island, and city streetscapes. Nineteenth-century photographers carried their equipment around in wagons, on pack animals, or on their backs. The dark space or room varied in size from a large tent to a small-box enclosure.
James Allen Jenney was one of the early photographers making stereo-card images. In the 1860 U.S. Census, Jenney was listed as living in Port Huron and working as a daguerrean artist. By 1864, he and his family were living in Flint. Later that year, they moved to Detroit. It is interesting to note that Jenney took up the new technology of photography early and worked with it for 20 years, with most of his stereo-view cards being made when he lived in Flint and Detroit. Today, Jenney's stereo cards stand out from his competitors' because he captured scenes from everyday life. His series on lumbering, ice fishing, and Mackinac Island are examples of life in Michigan. While many look posed, they do not appear faked. Those images give us a look into late-nineteenth-century work and command high prices on today's antique market.
Jenney's series called "In the Pineries" contains views of logging operations in Lapeer, Midland, and Tuscola Counties. He grouped his scenes into views of camp life, felling trees, sawing logs, loading and skidding the logs, and finally, moving them to a mill.
He published stereo views of Adrian for art-store proprietor Charles A. Conklin; views of Ypsilanti for druggist Frank Smith; and views of Ann Arbor, Lansing, Lake Orion, and Orchard Lake for others.
It was complicated to produce an image using glass-plate technology. First, many chemicals were needed, none of which came prepackaged. The photographer needed a camera and a tripod to steady it, plus a dark space to handle the plates. In addition, other supplies such as glass for plates, jars to store chemicals, and trays or containers for plate processing were needed.
For wet-plate photography, a piece of glass was chemically sensitized to light in a dark space. It was then put into a light-proof holder. Once in the camera, the glass plate was exposed, usually by removing the lens cover for a period of time. The exposed plate was taken back to the dark space, where it was developed and fixed with more chemicals. It was then no longer sensitive to light. The last step was to wash all remaining chemicals away with water. After washing, the plate was dried in a rack and stored in a container designed to reduce breakage. A similar process was followed when making paper prints from the glass negative.
While stereo images could be made with a single-lens camera, most nineteenth-century photographers used a double-lens camera. The stereo camera would have produced two glass plates, each taken at the same time but offset by 2[/] inches. Due to camera optics, images had to be swapped--left to right and right to left--for them to be viewed in stereo.
The production of stereo cards was a labor-intensive process. Eventually, machines were developed to aid in the production of cards, but the process was never fully automated. Although a few stores specialized in stereo cards and paraphernalia, most cards were sold inside other businesses. Examples of specialized stores include J.J. Bardwell's Gallery and that of George R. Angell in Detroit. Both specialized in various types of photography. Nearby were druggists Higby & Stearns and opticians L. Black & Company--two merchants who sold stereo cards along with other items.
The 7- by 3[/]-inch cardboard mount and the Holmes stereo viewer became the standard equipment for stereo views. Oliver Wendell Holmes developed a stereo viewer in 1859 but did not patent the concept. His friend, Joseph Bates of Boston, manufactured a version of that viewer, as did many others.
By the 1880s, the stereo-card business was passing from small producers to large companies, and many Michigan photographers went out of the business. Stereo imagery never disappeared--it just changed. View-Master units and cards were introduced in 1939 and are still sold today.
By Donald L. Batkins
Donald L. Batkins grew up in Mount Clemens. He attended Wayne State and Eastern Michigan Universities and received a Ph.D. from Michigan State University. He is retired and lives in the Boston area.
Caption: An early example of a stereo image, the stereo daguerreotype. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZC4-9630.)
Caption: Images taken by Michigan photographer James Allen Jenney, who was known for his "scenes from life." Above left: A stereo-card image of a lumber camp in Flint, Michigan. Above: This photo shows logs being loaded on a skid. Left: Loggers cut down a tree in Flint. (Photos courtesy of The New York Public Library.)
Caption: This stereoscope reproduction, made to look like one from the mid-1870s, shows how stereo cards were placed onto the device. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Davepape.)
Please Note: Illustration(s) are not available due to copyright restrictions.