One-shot #3: Bierstadt & Draper’s Moon

Brian May’s new book “Mission Moon 3-D” is now published and available to the pubic – I had an opportunity to preview it at last month’s meeting of the New York Stereoscopic Association. It feature a number of actual stereographic images, created from alternate takes of NASA photographs from the vaults – as well as artificially created views, and a complete history of the moon landing. It’s quite impressive, and certainly has my recommendation (though I still consider “A Village Lost and Found” to be May’s most interesting stereographic exploration to date).

But moon photography – and indeed, moon stereography – existed for a century before man set foot on the surface of the moon. Single-image photography is easy enough – a large-format camera back (usually wet-plate in the earliest versions) was attached to a telescope focused on the film plane, and the image was exposed for an extended period of time (to account for the relatively low light filtering through a telescope). Stereographic images, however, had to be done differently – and perhaps not the way most people would assume. Let’s take a look at a moon image that I received in the mail today, courtesy of one of my innumerable romps around eBay in the middle of the night:

“Full Moon”, photographed by Henry Draper, published by Charles Bierstadt, and distributed by Underwood & Underwood.

We’ll get to Bierstadt (the publisher) and his relationship with distributor Underwood & Underwood in a moment, but for now, let’s talk about Professor Henry Draper and his methodology. Draper was the son of John William Draper – the first person ever to produce a clear photograph of the moon, in 1840, one year after the first successful dry plate photograph was taken. The younger Draper was a notable astronomer in his own right, and built his own observatory, with a huge, technically advanced telescope, in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. Draper’s moon photography – and other astrophotography – is admired to this day. There is a small crater on the moon named after him, and his telescope is preserved in a museum in Poland.

But whether or not the methodology to create this stereoview of the moon was Draper’s idea, or that of Bierstadt, or perhaps some third part is unknown. It is certainly not your average stereoview. Typically, most stereoscopic photography involves clicking the shutter once, which fires two lenses roughly 4-6 inches apart simultaneously that capture two images – at roughly the difference in distance as two human eyes, creating a realistic portrayal of what a subject would look like if we were standing in the photographer’s shoes.

But the moon is so far away that it appears flat to the naked eye – it is well into the infinity point. In general, the farther away a subject is, the more distance between lenses is needed; the closer the subject, the less distance. Macro stereoviews are produced with lenses quite close together, or a single camera taking two frames moved as much as millimeters. To hit the “sweet spot”, the lenses have to make the right sort of triangular figure with the moon. While someone’s first intuition when viewing this stereoview would likely be “they took a photograph of the moon, moved a bit away and took another photograph of the moon”, that intuition would be far off the mark. Even if a telescope of the size needed to capture detailed images of the moon were small enough in the mid-late 19th century to be moved (they weren’t), the curvature of the earth and means of travel available in the era would preclude two images from two locations.

These are two images taken on two different lunar cycles from the same location. The cycles could have been months apart, or years apart – what’s important is to capture the same amount of detail and similar exposures, so that the two negatives could combine to show the amount of variance in rotation that would provide a (semi-)accurate rendering of the depth of the moon. In that regard, this stereoview fails slightly – free view the reproduced stereoview above, or consider the anaglyph below:

Anaglyph of “Full Moon”, photographed by Henry Draper, published by Charles Bierstadt, and distributed by Underwood & Underwood.

The moon is basically spherical in shape, and yet this image as presented is somewhat more ovoid – it “pops” out at the viewer more, like the narrow end of an egg, or one of Madonna’s 1990s bras. This is, of course, because the images differ a little too much – using two negatives where the features of the moon were slightly closer together would produce a much more spherical (and less ovoid) mental rendering during the stereo merge.

Again, since this card contains little information (date created, etc) it is unclear whether this was Draper’s idea – or even produced during his lifetime – or whether Charles Bierstadt came up with the idea of simply choosing two negatives and printing them – or whether Bierstadt was copying the idea of another person. Since this was distributed by Underwood & Underwood, it was clearly late in Bierstadt’s career – his early and mid-period prints, self-distributed, were on his own stock. Strohmeyer put out a similar card in 1891, and Kilburn did one that was reproduced by Underwood in 1899 – this appears to predate both. T. W. Ingersoll released a late 1890s card, and there are numerous undated lithographic cards that use the same technique as well. So who devised it is anybody’s guess.

There are a few traces of evidence here – Charles Bierstadt was first and foremost a photographer, who most prominently photographed Niagara falls – where he was based. His Niagara Falls photography is still considered notable to this day, and anybody who collects stereoviews on the area certainly will have some Bierstadts in their card boxes. While he eventually allowed Underwood to take over distribution of his cards, he originally mounted his images on a series of increasingly elaborate stock cards; here is a mid-career view of the Niagara Falls region in winter – his favorite time to shoot:

“554 Ice Grove, Canada Side, Niagara”

On his earlier self-produced cards – from the 1850s through the 1870s – he generally referred to himself as “C. Bierstadt” or “Chas Bierstadt”; during his mid-period, he used his full birth name, and in most of the images he licensed to Underwood (including the featured image from this post), he returned to “C. Bierstadt”, and dropped “New York” from his list of publishing locations – exclusively using “Niagara Falls”. Note also that he credits himself only as publisher on the moon card – it wasn’t until later in his career that he took significant steps to publish works he licensed (or in some cases, simply used) from other photographers. One final clue comes from the Underwood card itself – it lacks the typical index number common to cards produced by Underwood, which bought out Bierstadt’s business in 1897, as his health was failing. Printed on the sepia stock, and not the later grey stock common with later Underwood product, the card itself probably dates to the final years of the 19th century – but the image is older. Because I just popped back onto eBay and found (and bought, sorry collectors) this card:

“Full Moon”, 1870s printing. Not my photo of the card, but hey, I paid for it, so I think this is fair use.

So the card is on Bierstadt’s 1870s stock, meaning it dates back at least that far – which was during Draper’s lifetime! Thus Bierstadt probably had legitimate usage licenses for the negatives, and possibly collaborated with Draper in making the image. I suspected this, but didn’t want to peek on eBay until I got to this point in the post – because I wanted to take you through the steps I take when investigating a stereo card. No chicanery was involved; I intentionally avoided using Google Image Search or eBay to solve the mystery before I posed and explored it myself. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey.

And on a sidenote, if you enjoyed the Bierstadt image from Niagara Falls reproduced to illustrate mid-period cards, at some point in the nearish future I’ll be posting a series of his work over the years – so keep checking in here!

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