Charles Bierstadt: A Great Stereographer’s Journeys Beyond Niagara & Yosemite

When most aficionados of stereoscopic photography hear the name “Charles Bierstadt”, they likely first think of Niagara Falls, and next think of Yosemite. This is a fairly reasonable train of thought; “Chas” Bierstadt was based out of Niagara Falls for most of his nearly 50-year photographic career, and took over 500 individual stereoviews of the Falls over the years – some put the estimate closer to 1,000 or more. Given that I have about 100 of them myself, mostly by random happenstance, I’m given to believe the higher estimate. Bierstadt photographed Niagara Falls from every angle, in every set of weather conditions – and he did a bang-up job of it:

No wonder that Bierstadt’s name gets put next to – or often above – that of another famous Niagara photographer, George Barker. What’s not so commonly spoken of is the fact that Prussian-born Bierstadt traveled all over the country (and outside of it); that he experimented with new techniques for creating 3D imagery (see Bierstadt & Draper’s Moon, one of the first posts on this blog); that his stereophotography is almost universally excellent, whether wide-angle landscapes, portraits, or still-lifes.

Along with the roaring waters and the giant trees, Bierstadt captured New York City and Washington, DC in the mid-to-late 19th century; he took stereos of lakes in North Conway, NH and of ritzy hotel ballrooms in Saratoga, NY. At least in conversation with other enthusiasts, I never hear of his work outside of his home base at Niagara Falls, and of his trips to Yellowstone. But there was much more to his work that this. I was poking through some boxes of Holmes-style (3.5×7″) cards when I came across a stack of Bierstadt’s work, in much better than average condition, and thought I’d share a stack of ten here, in order to broaden opinions on a very talented photographer. And I hope your opinion is broadened if you had him squarely placed in those two compartments. Enjoy!

Pretty good – and diverse – stuff, no? Elevated rails, beautiful reflections in the water, and very proficient architectural work. But what collection of the work of Chas Bierstadt would be complete without a view of a giant sequoia, with a figure or three in front of it to give a sense of scale? I would not be such a stereographic skinflint as to deny my readers this pleasure:

Anaglyphs

One of the reasons I hate anaglyphing Holmes-style cards is that the vast majority of them are characterized by the curvature of the top of the left and right sides of the stereo pair. Often times, ideal stereopsis is not achieved with a bare overlay, and often manufacturers – certainly not excluding Charles Bierstadt – cut their films by hand, leading to varying degrees in evenness in the form. Why not include the entire (square or rectangular) image? In any case, it leaves me with a dilemma – chop the top and lose some of the image; do an offset overlay and just leave the offset areas to annoy people looking at the anaglyph; just do it how I most enjoy the image and damn the world. With most of these, it wasn’t so terribly difficult, and a mix of all three methods led to some outstanding results:

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