As an engineer, John Ballou was familiar with the principles behind stereography — commonly called 3D photography — but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he accidentally made his first stereoscopic image. He was sorting through some aerial photographs taken from his model airplane when he saw two images that looked identical.
Ballou put the photos side-by-side to compare them, and tried crossing his eyes to see if he could achieve a stereoscopic effect. “And sproing! it just popped out,” he said. “All the sudden the trees are sticking up, buildings are sticking up, and I probably stayed up till four in the morning, looking through all of my archives looking for pairs that were close enough and just going, ‘Wow! Look at that!'”
After his chance encounter with stereography, Ballou was hooked, and in a position to do something about it. He joined the Oakland Camera Club in 2004, and quickly became its president.
The Bay Area is home to dozens of photography clubs, many of which date back to the 1930s. While their collective longevity is impressive, the Oakland Camera Club — one of the region’s smallest — stands out for its unique embracing of stereo photography. Its stereo division, the only one of its kind in Northern California, sustains the once-ubiquitous but largely forgotten craft.
Even so, Ballou found just a smattering of kindred spirits when he joined the club in 2004. Although it hosts a successful annual international stereo photography competition — the contest’s 52nd year attracted entries from nearly fifty photographers from as far away as Pakistan, New Zealand, and Germany — a mere ten shutterbugs showed up for the stereo division’s monthly meetings.
It wasn’t always so. Although stereography is typically left out of the photographic canon in favor of “flatties” — stereo-enthusiast lingo for nonstereo images — stereographs were the most popular photographic form in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
When Barrie Bieler joined the Oakland Camera Club in the 1950s, it boasted a membership of 150 and was just one of three local clubs with a stereo division. Bieler, an on-and-off club president and now its senior member, joined a generation of photographers who grew up with stereography. As a child, he relished the immersive experience of sinking his eyeballs into his parents’ stereograph viewer. Like most middle-class and upper-class families of the 1930s, Bieler’s parents owned a large set of commercially produced stereographs of faraway European vistas and cityscapes. “They probably had two hundred or so of those cards, and my sister and I when I was five, six, seven, eight, would sit down and look at those and visit the world,” Bieler said. “That was before television was really out, too.”
Stereographs were not just pure entertainment, however. The military used them for countless reconnaissance missions, and Bieler recounts how his Cal Tech geology courses routinely referred to stereographs for topographical information.
Around the time he joined the club, Bieler began making his first stereographs using a standard 35mm camera and the “cha-cha” technique, named for the way the photographer seems to be dancing as he works. By shifting his weight from one leg to the other between photographs, he can create just enough distance between the shots to reproduce the stereoscopic effect.
Although eventually Bieler bought a specialized stereoscopic camera — the type that coordinates the zoom, focus, and shutter for two lenses at once — his old cha-cha stereo slides are as sharp as ever, and the handheld viewer he built fifty years ago still works like a charm.
However, Bieler says, the division’s original members have dropped out or passed away, and fewer new members came on board as stereography’s popularity waned. Now Bieler has entrusted the new guard of stereographers like Ballou to reinvigorate local interest in the hobby.
Ballou just returned from a backpack trip, during which he took more than seven hundred pairs of stereographs. For each of his favorites, Ballou will align the paired images on his computer and get a local lab to process the edited files into slides, which he will then place into special holders.
The process, while a relative bargain at $3 per stereo pair, is time-consuming, but Ballou hopes that the club’s upcoming purchase of digital stereograph projection equipment will bring in new stereophiles by allowing them to skip the physical slides altogether.
In another attempt to revamp the club’s waning membership, Ballou has promised new members a chance to loan out stereo cameras before making any financial investment in the hobby. These newbies, he hopes, will become as addicted to the sproing! moment as he was.