VistaScreen’s “Venezia”: Sterescopic 3D photography of the canals, monuments, and buildings of 1950s Venice

The Various Qualities of VistaScreen as Related to Foreign Lands

A couple of months ago, paired with a series of his art nudes, I gave a short history of Stanley Long’s history with the VistaScreen outfit, which produced some very British stereoviews. A month later, I discovered that VistaScreen had produced stereoviews aimed at the foreign market as well – in this case, a pair of French views from a circus. At the beginning of July, we took a look at a serious nadir in Long’s career. And a little over a week ago, I posted a three-part series on the Bertram Mills Circus, culminating in a great many conclusions about VistaScreen, and about Long’s stereographic tendencies.

Even more recently, I wrote up a Raumbild series on Holland. One of its chief failings is that it incorrectly implies that it explores a country. What it actually does is ramble around Amsterdam, culminating with an out-the-car-window shot of a windmill. Here, you do not get exactly what is described on the tin. You walk away thinking that all Holland – and perhaps the entirety of the Netherlands – has to offer is one city, primarily known in America for its legal prostitution and cannabis cafés. Apparently, Amsterdam was Holland to a contemporaneous German photographer.

For this post, we’re going to take a look at VistaScreen “Serie M.21 – Venezia”. This is a fascinating series. It takes a short tour of a single city, and is named accordingly. While the series label on the box chooses the Italian name for the city, this could an artistic decision… but it’s not. There are bilingual captions, proving that not only did VistaScreen produce views intended for foreign markets, they produced some sets that were both foreign and domestic. The British Isles, France, and Italy all have their own cards. And perhaps most interesting of all, this set does not – in any way, appear to have been shot by Stanley Long. We’ll get into this later, but for now, have a look at…

The Stereoviews

Analysis of the VistaScreen Cards

First and foremost, notice the Italian captions running up the left side, and the English running down the right. This was obviously meant for readers of either language, unlike the French “Cirque” series. The later-period VistaScreen logo is used at bottom, which correlates with the fact that this appears only in my most recent order form. On that form, however, the series is listed as “M. 21 – Venice”. Were different boxes created for different markets? And how were these advertised overseas? Until some empirical evidence comes to light, we can’t answer these questions.

And then there are the vertical captions. Were these an attempt to not place one language “above” another? They’re certainly less readable when viewing the cards. An odd design choice for sure. Finally, you will notice that all the margins are even, all the edge-lines straight – in other words, this isn’t the sloppy work we’re used to with Stanley Long’s VistaScreen stereoviews.

The Stereoscopic Pairs

One thing I will admit flat-out is that I have very little knowledge of Venice. I know there are canals and gondolas, and that Don’t Look Now is such an awesome film that I bought the Criterion Blu-Ray. And that’s about it. My “Italian Renaissance I” Art History class 18 years ago didn’t cover Venice. It was all about Florence, and I never took “Italian Renaissance II”. 20-year-old Ian didn’t care enough about the topic to attend a seminar before noon. Thus I can’t speak to whether these cover the city well, though I appreciate the fact that this series does not bear the name “Italy”.

But I can say with certainty – having examined these cards first through a stereoscope, then through hi-res scans, and finally as anaglyphs – is that these are pretty great stereoviews. They are particularly impressive when compared to the bulk of the VistaScreen oeuvre. There is a lot of mid-tonal detail; good edge accutance in contrast areas; pleasing compositions; dead-on exposures. Even as single-frame images, these pop. They’re almost to the viewing quality of Raumbild in its heyday, shrunk down to 45×107 mm VistaScreens. They’re good.

Another thing we can clearly see here is variety. Unlike in the abysmal “Chi-Chi the Giant Panda” series, there’s lots to take in, and from lots of different angles. Yes, there are plenty of canals and gondolas. But the images aren’t redundant. Sometimes the focus is on the bridge over the canal. Sometimes on the building beyond. In the view from a bridge, a woman appears protruding in hyperstereo, placing her beside us, as viewers. There are buildings, monuments, and so on. This does not have the one-note read of a typical VistaScreen packet.

Were These Taken by Stanley Long?

This question obviously has no definitive answer. At least not to me, not knowing where whatever archives that have survived for ~70 years are being held. Nor is any information readily available online. Much of what I’ve learned about Long and his association with VistaScreen come from talking to other enthusiasts. It is by no means gospel. But I think there is sufficient reason here to suggest that somebody else took the base pairs for these images, perhaps selling them off to VistaScreen later. Let’s look at the evidence before us:

  • Stanley Long’s sets tended to be hastily shot, with Long heading to a town or attraction for a single day’s shooting. Loading his Heidoscop up to five times daily, he could shoot multiple series in one day if so inclined. The images clearly show this, with dodgy compositions, ridiculously cut-off subjects, and all that comes with a hurried shoot.
  • In any given set of Long’s images, at least half generally use a protruding hyperstereo effect, even when the entire scene seems to be placed in front of us. “Venezia”, on the other hand, uses the effect once – to place us on the bridge with an anonymous woman.
  • Long’s Heidoscope tended to leave somewhat jagged fringes which can be seen in every English-language VistaScreen set posted so far. This leads to uneven margins. The margins on these cards are perfect.
  • Long was clearly at least a bit lazy with everything but his nude and glamour photography. His compositions are generally lackluster (but still included). His exposures are all over the place. If Long could reach his destination from London, shoot it, and return in the same day, all the better. These might have been taken on the same day as well – but they all appear to be well-considered. Not standard Long.

If not Long, then Who?

And now we have the most difficult question before us, which again, can only be answered with conjecture given the available information. As we know, VistaScreen sold out to Weetabix when the company started crumbling as a result of royalties disputes between Long and the Spring Brothers. It’s entirely possible that, towards the end, the Springs tried to sub-contract out other photographers. This makes sense for the Springs – they could get a more varied catalogue from a wider geographical region.

But this is potentially a flawed conjecture – Long, owning a partial stake in the company, received a fee up front plus royalties from sales. Freelance photographers, on the other hand, are not often quick to give up their rights. For VistaScreen to obtain exclusive rights to print a group of stereoviews, they’d need to obtain copyright or at least an exclusive license. I’m a freelance photographer. I’m not inclined to part with my copyrights… ever. And I’ve only sold exclusive licenses a few times, and not on the cheap. Keeping in mind that VistaScreen would have to look for a talented photographer shooting with a Heidoscop or Rolleidoscop in keeping with their own printing equipment, it would seem to be a big ask from a relatively small pool of people.

So really, the only conclusions to be drawn about the provenance of these images are founded in vague guesswork. A different photographer seems likely, since the camera appears to be different, and the style does not seem like Long’s. But we know so little about the VistaScreen company in general that I can’t name another photographer working for them. It could have been freelancers, but there are arguments against this theory, as mentioned above. Maybe, towards the end, Long had improved his technique and took vacations to France, Belgium, and Italy. Since new information on VistaScreen pops up in the community from time to time, perhaps we’ll be able to answer some of these questions sooner or later. Then again, perhaps not.

Anaglyphs

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