One-shot #12: Rau’s Camouflaged Penguin

So I just came across a stereo card I snagged some time ago from eBay:

“2640 King Penguin. South Africa.” By William H. Rau, published by Griffith & Griffith. Do you immediately see the penguin here?

While the stereographic image itself is laughably bad, two things stand out about it: firstly, it was done by William H. Rau, whose work is usually superlative, and was distributed by Griffith & Griffith, meaning it was published in the late 1890s. And secondly, it’s a penguin!

Starting with the second bit here, I love penguins. Always have. I just think they’re damn cool creatures, and if it were legal (and humane, since they’re social creatures by nature) I would have one as a pet. Although considering the fact that my lease won’t even allow me a dog, I think I’ll have to nix that one. At the very least, I’ve had the chance to play with a Humboldt penguin named Opus, thanks to a birthday gift from my wife about a year after we’d started dating. That’s more penguin than most people get, I reckon.

But more interestingly, this is an objectively terrible photograph by an objectively distinguished lensman, and late enough in his career that he was distributing by a company founded about 2 decades after Rau began his photographic career! To knock this one out quickly – Griffith & Griffith emerged in 1896 as a competitor to Underwood & Underwood. Started by a former U&U door-to-door canvasser who just so happened to be named George W. Griffith, G&G quickly amassed negatives from a number of photographers, Rau amongst them. With over 10,000 negatives in their collection, something in the 2,000s is relatively early. And Rau effectively retired around the turn of the century. So my supposition is that this stereograph was taken in the late 19th century.

But Rau was a very talented photographer, and captured subjects ranging from railroads to architecture to landscapes with a remarkably reliable eye – so why is this image so rubbish? Besides not differentiating between the subject and background via contrast (having the king penguin noticeably lighter or darker than the background), he fails to place the penguin in a decent location – it is right along the border between the rocky outcropping at left, and the recessed area full of plants at right! Could he not have waited a moment or two for the penguin to more into a better position, or alternately, better positioned himself to capture the unmoved penguin in situ? And worst of all, he doesn’t use stereographic depth – a technique at which he excelled, and was noted for – to differentiate the penguin from the rock wall.

This view is frankly amateurish. I probably could have done better as a kid; my pre-teen nephew could probably intuitively do better with his iPhone. It’s really not hard to take a better photograph, stereo or otherwise, of a penguin. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it would be difficult to take a worse photograph of a penguin. In this photograph, the subject in question might as well be wearing camouflage. In fact, I’m going to name this card (and this post): Rau’s Camouflaged Penguin! Hey, it sure beats my first thought, which was to call it “Good Photographer Half-Asses Penguin Stereograph” or some such.

Nevertheless, it remains in one of my boxes of random cards that I like, due 100% to the subject matter, and due exactly 0% to the “efforts” of the photographer. Here’s the anaglyph:

I added the 3D title to the card to make it slightly more enjoyable / less miserable to view. Meanwhile, I’m considering starting starting a new 501(c)3 charitable organization: Penguins Opposed to Off-putting Photography. The downside of this, of course, is that the acronym for it would be POOP. Fitting, though, for this image…

7 Replies to “One-shot #12: Rau’s Camouflaged Penguin”

  1. Hi! Thanks for the interesting and amusing post! I’m trying to research Griffith & Griffith as I found a bunch of their stereographs at a German rubbish dump. Could you recommend any websites or books that has information on the company? I could hardly find anything on them online. Thanks!

Leave a Reply