One-shot #31: La Stéréoscopie Universelle (LSU)’s SDV division really steps in it…

Sometimes, when diving into a new accession, one stumbles across something weird. In the world of glass plate stereoviews, it can be any number of things. An alternate caption for a well-known slide. Something toned purple for no apparent reason. A pair of naked ladies in a stack of views primarily featuring ruined buildings. A half printed plate. Weird things come in little boxes of stereoviews, from time to time. On Tuesday, when a effective treasure trove of stereography arrived in the form of a pile of parcels, two unassuming boxes sat amongst the cache, looking more or less as such:

A box from LSU – La Stéréoscopie Universelle.

Each box contained 20 slides – even though I had only paid for a total of 39 – there was one extra slide in there. Cool! I love gifts! The sender, a friendly Frenchman named Pascale, had explained the inclusion of an additional slide in an email, a day after the slides arrived (and a day before I looked at them):

Vous verrez qu’il y a une plaque en plus mais que je ne suis pas arrivé à visionner car je pense qu’elle a un défaut. La stéréo ne se fait pas.

This translates (according to Google) to: “You will see that there is a plate in addition but that I have not been able to view because I think it has a defect. Stereo is not done.” Okay, I thought, there’s an erroneous slide where either the left or right hand frame was used twice while printing a slide in the lab. Big deal. Probably still a cool image, even if non-stereo. These things happen; I have a number of views which appear to be stereoviews until one attempts to view them – and it becomes clear that they’re just a pair of identical images. This would be one of the common weird occurrences discussed above. But this was not the case with the bonus slide, the first thing I noticed when I opened the first box. What I found was this:

“C.420. Pres du Fort de Douaumont” (“C.420. Near Fort Douaumont”), misprint, from LSU’s SDV (Service des Ventes) unit, which marketed slides to former soldiers. 45x107mm glass diapositive.

Assuming that you even gave this slide a cursory glance, you will have noticed that the right-hand image is rotated a full 180 degrees – this isn’t just a weird slide, it’s a completely bizarre misprint which I’m surprised survived past the darkroom, or at the very least, the light table afterwards. It’s certainly shocking that it wound up in a box of other slides, many of them from the 40, 41, and 42 series of SDV slides – this would be the tenth slide in series 42. If it weren’t a complete mutant. If you’ve been reading this blog since November, you’ll probably remember that there was one LSU slide in a box of Brentano’s views which I blogged about in the Month of Remembrance posts – a proper, if obviously later-generation version of this very image:

“Près du Fort de Vaux 1916” (“Near Fort Vaux 1916”), From LSU, #2012.

And interestingly, I borrowed this caption from Doug Jordan‘s canonical version because I could not read the text from the slide itself; I was still scanning in JPEG format at that point, and I couldn’t enhance it as much as I wanted. Now that I can with digital negatives, I realize that this slide is also mis-captioned; it bears no standard LSU number, but only the caption “Verdun – Vision d’Horreur” (“Verdun – Vision of Horror”). I actually feel that this apocryphal title is more apropos; it might be the case that with all the Great War photography I’ve seen, I’m somewhat desensitized to complete dead bodies, but this simple image of a blown-off leg is simply moving.

Getting back to the slide under consideration right now, however – this print of C.420 is clearly a misprint, and in more ways than one. Of course the 180º rotation of the right-hand image is jarring, but there’s something more going on here. Let’s “correct” the misprinted slide and see what we can see:

30 seconds worth of processing and we have something that *looks* like a proper stereoscopic image…

But there’s still something off here. Compare this to the mis-titled but properly printed image above – this is horizontally reversed! Another little digital tweak gets us to what the final product was presumably supposed to look like:

The image looks correct – but now the caption is mirrored!

So what in the hell is going on here? It’s really easy to wonder how they could screw things up so badly – from a modern perspective. With the perspective of century-old technology, let’s take a look at how these views were made, and where this process could have gone wrong. A negative image would be taken on a 6x13cm (medium format) glass plate. Depending on the quality of the stereo camera, between a tiny amount (say, 1 mm) and a moderate amount (say, 1 cm) of overlap would occur in the space where light hit the plate from both the left and right lenses.

The master negative would be masked in the overlap area, leaving a white division line down the center of the master positive. If the master positive was then similarly masked, it would create a white bar between the images on the secondary negatives printed from it – into which captions could be written. Positives made from these negatives would bear identical captions, with identical handwriting and all. This was the process by which Verascope Richard created their canonical images – even on hand-written (as opposed to typed) views, the writing would match between slides from the same base negative. In terms of LSU, though, the base negatives would be in the 6×13 format, not the smaller VR standard. From this, or from later generations, 6×13 plates could be contact printed quite easily.

But reduction to the the far-more-popular 45×107 positives was a different matter. There are a number of means by which one could reduce – rather than enlarge – a negative, but one important consideration that this slide brings up is that there are three basic components going into the printing of a master negative – the left-hand view, the title bar, and the left-hand bar. Proper stereopsis requires that these smaller slides have a wider margin in the center, to match interocular distance – at least for the least headache-inducing viewing experience. One would think that, with this level of difficulty in producing the 45×107 pairs, it would make the most sense to make a master negative in the smaller format, and to simply contact print from this.

This stereoview is proof that, at least some of the time, this was not the process being used in LSU’s darkrooms. Each segment of this image must have been projected through an enlarger separately – for if they had come from contact-printing a proper copy negative, then it would have been noticed immediately, as every single copy of the slide would bear these errors. This had to be three components, arranged hastily by an incompetent, tired, or otherwise compromised printer, and this print somehow made its way into a box that was likely sold to a former solder the better part of a century ago.

It is hard not to wonder what this soldier must have thought when reaching the last slide of his newly arrived Series 42 SDV slide pack – as the others from this series in the box were wonderful, properly done views. Did he get a good chuckle? Did he grow angry at the wasted money, or the cavalier attitude towards another poor soldier’s leg, portrayed carelessly on this waste of glass?

As with a great many things we ponder when we consider 100-year-old stereography, we will never know.

Anaglyph (of fixed image)

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