Why I Love Amateur Glass Stereoviews: 7 Great War Slides from France

Earlier this week, I received a parcel from France, which is always a cause for excitement. This particular parcel contained 7 medium format (6×13 cm) amateur glass stereoviews from the Great War, as well as a cool postcard and a fragile old document that I still haven’t gotten around to translating. But I’ve looked at these slides numerous times since. In doing so, I came to the decision to blog about them not so much as a cohesive collection – which they may, or may not, be. Rather, I’m going to use them as examples of why I prefer amateur European glass stereoviews to the more common paper views, or even to commercial glass.

Long-time readers of this blog will not be surprised that this is my preference, as I have stated it numerous times. Even casual readers have probably noticed that I post about glass slides much more regularly than paper cards. But I haven’t really given much of an explanation of why I have this preference, nor the preference for amateur over commercial works. So here is something of an explanation!

1) Amateur glass stereoviews provide “fresh” perspectives on common scenes

European amateur glass stereoview depicting the notable "Gott strafe England! 1914/15" building in Bucy-le-Long
The well-documented “Gott strafe England! 1914/15” graffitied ruin in Bucy-le-Long, with a solitary soldier – possibly the photographer – looking on.

This scene is probably familiar to most people who spend far too much time looking through the IWM’s First World War pages, or indeed at Great War stereoviews. André Ruiter has done an excellent blog post on it, which contains the Brentano’s take on the scene, as well as background information. He also notes the lovely autochrome, nicely reproduced on page 226 of the must-have Taschen anthology. If you haven’t read André’s post yet, please do so before continuing!

Enter the amateur sleuth

This is an entirely different take on the subject – and a later one. Part of the fun of amateur glass stereoviews is that they’re not widely studied – as presumably only one or a few copies exist. Thus, one must act as a detective, using clues from what information is present in the emulsion. From studying the brickwork, especially in the shell-hole on the second story of the building, we can make a chronology. The autochrome was taken first, in 1917. Next, the Brentano’s diapositive was created. Finally, my amateur view was taken – it shows the most damage to the structure.

The aesthetics of the solitary soldier

Perhaps this is just my take on things, but then again this is a post about why I love amateur glass stereoviews, not a post on why you should. But I find that images portraying a solitary soldier in the desolate backgrounds of the Great War far more powerful than images of masses of troops, prisoners, etc. I can understand why the latter would have more commercial appeal, of course – people want to see the scale of the war, the artillery, the three-man crews operating the machine guns, the zeppelins, and so on. This is a much more reflective and personal take on the scene, which makes sense because it was probably taken by a soldier as his own personal record of the events.

Perhaps he had a camera advanced enough to have a timer, and this is a self-portrait. Perhaps he asked a traveling partner to stand in. Or perhaps he happened to capture another soldier wondering at the vitriolic sentiment etched on the building at least two years prior. We will never know the answers to these questions. But on a personal level, it’s much easier (especially in 3D) to insert myself into a scene such as this. I can imagine myself both as the photographer and as the lone soldier.

The little details in amateur glass stereoviews

European amateur glass stereoview depicting the Cathédrale Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais de Soissons
The Cathedral Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais de Soissons – as viewed from a side-street, across from a confectionary.

The Cathedral Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais de Soissons is, once again, well-trodden ground in terms of subject matter. The Reims Cathedral is undoubtedly the most iconic symbol of the Central Powers’ destructiveness during the War. The Cloth Hall in Ypres is probably a close second. But this Catholic basilica was the subject of many a photograph, from its initial bombing in 1915 to its near total annihilation in July 1918, during the Battle of Soissons. The shell of the building is visible in several shots in a previous post, Ruins Tourism and the Ghoul of Soissons. The photographer responsible for this image chose not to show the whole cathedral, but rather to split the focus with a confectionary across the street:

A detail from the Soissons Cathedral amateur glass stereoview, portraying the confectionary across the street.
This confectionary is apparently open for business, and one can’t help but wonder if the photographer’s intent was to portray this. The shadow patterns from the buildings facing it across the Rue de la Buerie reveal a rough time of day. This stereoview was taken an hour or two before sunset.

Looking down the Rue de la Buerie, on which the photographer stood, reveals another sign of life in the commune:

Detail from an amateur glass stereoview from Soissons, focused on a cafe sign
“Haricots *** Soissons Sucré ** Café” – roughly translating to “Beans *** Soissons Sweet ** Café”.

Haricots de Soissons – a sweet bean with origins along the Aisne – are one of the things the commune is known for, and such a point of pride that they regularly have figured into the local parades and festivals. These little details bring wonderful context to the image that a dead-on (but obvious) shot of the cathedral does not. It’s unlikely that you’d catch this if you are free-viewing the scanned image, or looking at the anaglyph. And this brings us to our next chapter…

2) Glass stereoviews are incredibly detailed when viewed through a stereoscope

Go back and take a look at that last amateur glass stereoview. Try to find the sign for the Haricot Café – you might be able to find it; you won’t be able to read it. This is because the amount of information that can be stored in the emulsion on a 6×13 cm glass plate is far greater than that which can be displayed by even the best digital monitor – at least, those within the price range of normal working artists like myself. Let’s look at another, even more dramatic example:

European amateur glass stereoview depicting two horses outside a makeshift encampment built into a hillside
A pair of horses appear to depart from a ramshackle encampment built into a hillside on the outskirts of a semi-ruined village.

Did you click on the image? If so, you might have noticed the band of men standing outside the dugout built into the hillside. If you’re just free-viewing the small version, you probably didn’t even see them. Add orders of magnitude to this difference, and you get an idea of the experience of using a stereoscope. And unlike the Holmes scopes used on paper stereoviews, the glass substrate is transparent. With proper diffusion, you can add or subtract light to make details more noticeable. The scene filling your field of view, details emerge:

A detail from the above amateur glass stereoview, featuring a band of soldiers at their outpost.
A detail from the above amateur glass stereoview, featuring a band of soldiers at their outpost.

Light and dark through the stereoscope

With a handheld stereoscope, you can aim the frosted glass at a neutrally lit wall, a window, or a point light source like a bare bulb. This immediately alters your viewing experience, going from a darkish image to a light one, then to very bright. With a tabletop stereoscope, these effects can be achieved through switching 300, 1000, and 20000 lumen torches as backlights. In either case, you can choose to have a better view of the highlight or the shadow areas. This is not possible with paper cards. The initial contrast of the print determines your viewing experience. I’ll demonstrate as best I can digitally:

European amateur glass stereoview depicting the construction of an aid station or dugout
An aid station, communications bunker, or similar shelter under construction.

This is about the effect you’d get pointing a handheld scope at a window. The two men outside the shelter are fairly clear, especially stereoscopically. But move to a point source, and what you see is more akin to:

Detail from the above amateur glass stereoview; the man inside the shelter is clearly utilizing a hammer.
The third man, inside the shelter, stands out now – he is clearly working on the wall of the structure.

Unfortunately, I can only approximate the effect in order to demonstrate yet another trait I love about amateur glass stereoviews. Modern technology has not caught up with that created 100 years ago; the computer is a poor analogue to the stereoscope. While looking at this image, you may have noticed something that differentiates it from a commercial view. The man hauling the board towards the shelter is basically showing the camera his arse. Which brings us to…

3) Amateur views show a different side of the human experience than do commercial views

Commercial views were culled from a variety of photographers, and generally have the intent of showing a “fly-on-the-wall” view of the War. They were selected because they are exciting, usually show themes consistent with the nationality of the manufacturer, and are a “best in kind” for a subject or event. Soldiers on the manufacturer’s “side” are portrayed in an idealized light; “enemies” are often not. However, amateur stereoviews tend to be either more candid or more posed than your typical professional shot. For example:

European amateur glass stereoview depicting soldiers posing with a winch
Some engineers working with a winch – while other soldiers hang out and take a break.

Portrayals of Great War engineers at work make up a hearty portion of most commercial sets. However, they’re meant to highlight the efficiency of the army portrayed, and generally don’t include details like this:

Two soldiers sitting and resting.
Two soldiers taking a break and straight-up chilling. Probably not something the French Army wanted to emphasize.

The need to idealize a nation’s soldiers, whether in slides released during the War or after, is easy to comprehend. However, an officer with his own camera wasn’t creating slides to appeal to the country on the whole. He was making slides that documented his own experiences. Sometimes during duty, a soldier was on for 18 hours, off for 6 – or other configurations of “absurdly overworked”. Of course these soldiers needed a break – and probably a cigarette! But this reality of the war is under-reported in commercial slides. And on top of the realism of candid shots like this…

Amateur slides capture non-universal experiences

European amateur glass stereoview depicting five men posing next to a ruined building
Five soldiers – at least three smoking cigarettes – pose for a portrait outside the shell of a ruined building.

This amateur glass stereoview captures something that even the rare “portrait” from a commercial set does not. Namely, the camaraderie of this particular band of soldiers. This was taken for the same reason that somebody in the 367th Fighter Squadron photographed my grandfather and his comrades during WW2. It is meant as a souvenir for this particular moment in time. While my favorite Brentano’s slide is a portrait, it’s clearly posed and the caption makes it universal. This is more personal. While we don’t know who the men are, and will never know, we can recognize the bond between them, especially when focused on this area of the image:

Three of the soldiers directly address the camera; two do not. All three whose hands are visible are smoking cigarettes. Smoking was almost universal in the French Army during the Great War.
Three of the soldiers directly address the camera; two do not. All three whose hands are visible are smoking cigarettes. Smoking was almost universal in the French Army during the Great War.

Wilfred Owen‘s later letters, or Ernst Jünger’s “Storm of Steel”, directly address the bonds that formed between the men who fought shoulder-to-shoulder, many for the duration of the War. This sort of camaraderie does not translate well to mass-produced stereoviews, which is why it’s largely absent from these. Amateur views are just teeming with these sorts of images though. They present a side of the War that is noticeably absent from more posed portraits, such as the Brentano’s. Like the winch stereoview two above, they are more personal. Commercial slides aim to be more universal.

4) Amateur views are often wonderfully imperfect

European amateur glass stereoview depicting a solitary soldier next to power lines
A solitary soldier contemplates an anonymous town on the horizon whilst leaning against a power line tower.

This amateur glass stereoview is flawed in a couple of ways. Most noticeably, the horizon line is crooked, leaving all the buildings leaning left. The soldier blends with the girder from the tower. But it is still a powerful image, especially when you notice that it had to be taken from a high position – maybe another nearby tower or structure. The fact that the top of the girder is nearer the viewer than the soldier confirms this. It doesn’t bother me one bit that there are imperfections in the image. This was some officer’s personal record, and he got what he was after – it’s a deeply contemplative stereoview. The “warts-and-all” nature of amateur stereography is one of it’s appeals – again, at least to me.

Some Further Considerations

Hopefully, I’ve at least been able to highlight my own love of amateur glass stereoviews. This is not an invitation to bid against me in auctions! And your mileage may vary, if you don’t already own thousands of commercial views. It was partially due to the fact that it’s become harder and harder to find commercial views to tick off on my trainspotter’s checklist that I started investigating, and then becoming obsessed with, amateur views in the last few years. Here are a few closing thoughts before I present the anaglyphic versions.

Is this even a cohesive set?

These seven slides were hand-picked by me from a reseller selling a lot of European glass on a variety of subjects. They came from the same lot, but that’s all the reseller knew of them. So again, I put on my detective hat, and assert that at least the first six form a cohesive collection. The first two were taken within 5 km of each other, around the same time – late 1917 or early 1918. The next four share a tonality, and all seven have similar emulsions and printing methods. I would also include the seventh image, tonality aside, due to the 0.5º variance between right and left halves. But this can only be conjecture. What is certain is that it’s not the photographer’s complete set. Sadly, these are often split up, and sold as individuals. These were. I’m calling them a cohesive set for purposes of the Boyd/Jordan/Ference Collection.

Uniqueness and Price

Any given amateur glass stereoview – of the Great War or of any other subject – can be presumed to be unique. While it is true that multiple diapositives can be created from the negative, the age of these (100+ years) means that any surviving copy is likely the only one left. Of course this might not always be the case. But either way, it’s unlikely that I’d come across one again even if it did exist – so sometimes I’ve had to pay far more for these slides than I would for a commercial slide. Thankfully, my primary interest is in the Great War, and after a noticeable price bump around the centenary, these have stabilized again. But while I mightn’t shell out €10 per slide on 6×13 commercial glass, I might on amateur glass stereoviews – because I wouldn’t want to regret missing them.

Personal taste

One of the reasons that many of these amateur views linger on auction sites for so long is that they’re generally not as exciting as commercial views. (Another is that some insane sellers think that someone will pay €45 for a single image.) I enjoy having a personal connection with history, and in the same way that Great War memoirs and letters give this verbally, amateur glass stereoviews give it visually. Everything I said about glass (as opposed to specifically amateur glass) pertains to commercial glass as well. The less-expensive and more readily available Brentano’s, LSU, Verascope, etc slides are no less important as documents. But I have thousands of these. I’m not making a case for everybody to jump on the amateur bandwagon! I would make a case that everybody should jump on the glass bandwagon, however.

Cataloguing is a bitch

One of the few annoyances I have with all the amateur glass stereoviews in my collection is cataloguing them. The vast majority bear no captions. The scenes are often anonymous – unknown figures in unknown places with no identifying features. This is why I latched on to these diapositives; I recognized two of the locales on sight, and placed them both spatially and temporally together. I would guess that the five I can’t place are also from somewhere along the Aisne.

But unlike LSU or Keystone, or even Realistic Travels to an extent, there is no way to definitively catalogue smaller amateur collections. Larger collections, sometimes – I am working on a finding aid for the Fasser Collection while I write up the articles for Stereo World. But the best I can do for most collections is assign them arbitrary names and accession dates. I can live with this, but know some more finicky collectors who couldn’t. There are no checklists for amateur glass stereoviews; so goes collecting unique artifacts. If you are intensely driven by order, but want to experience glass stereoviews from the Great War, I suggest starting with LSU. Though even those have some interesting deviations – which belong in an entirely different post.

Anaglyphs

The anaglyphs for these are presented in the order I unwrapped the slides, not the order they were presented in here. This is also how the views will be ordered on The Great War in 3D. Note the 1/2 degree variance which leads to a little more eye strain than usual when viewing these. This is one of my correlating factors that convinces me that these are part of a cohesive collection. However, it makes the anaglyphs far less pleasant than free-viewing or using a stereoscope.

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