The Brooklyn Stereography Guide to VistaScreen
VistaScreen on This Blog
Regular readers of Brooklyn Stereography have probably noticed I post VistaScreen series rather frequently. I have a bit of an obsessions with this weird little stereoscopic outfit from Britain – and this shows in the continual investigations into the company and its principal photographer, Stanley Long. However, it requires some digging to properly synthesize everything we known about VistaScreen and Long. Hence, I’m creating this page to collate all the data we have on VistaScreen, its history, extant sets, anomalies, etc. If you’re a fan of these strange, tiny cards, please feel free to contribute.
Little enough verifiable information on VistaScreen is floating around the internet. I’ve Googled it six ways from Sunday. There’s quite a bit of reminiscing on collecting the color lithographic cards during the Weetabix era (we’ll get into this). There’s not much to go on when investigating the founders, their technology, any photographers outside Stanley Long – even a complete list of series released by VistaScreen. Hopefully, further research will uncover more. But at the moment, we have a few online articles (mostly out of date), a bunch of hearsay from other VistaScreen collectors, and so on.
Let’s Change That
This page is meant to be a repository for everything we know about VistaScreen and its operations prior to selling out to Weetabix. To be honest, I’m not much concerned with this later phase of the company. Mass-produced, sub-par-quality color lithographic cards are not remotely interesting. But the cards produced in the 1950s – sets of 10, mostly on British topics, and some on exceptionally British topics, are very interesting. At least to me. Hopefully to you.
Thus I hope that this page continues to grow, and to paint as complete a picture of VistaScreen as is possible under the circumstances. It would be helpful to collect everything that is to be found about the company, and to stick it all in the same place. To this end, I’m going to create sub-pages including:
- A comprehensive series list
- A news page, updated with the latest VistaScreen information I/we uncover
- A media page, with various VistaScreen related advertisements, collateral, order forms, etc.
Brooklyn Stereography Blog Posts on VistaScreen Sets
A continually-updating list will allow readers to keep up to date on the VistaScreen sets that have been featured on the blog so far. Perhaps it will also encourage some readers to start collecting and researching VistaScreen themselves! In chronological order by date posted, the series shown on Brooklyn Stereography include:
- Series C. 62 “Bertram Mills Circus” (removed when a revision was posted)
- Series C. 34 “ZSL London Zoo”
- Series C. 155 “Blue-John Caverns”
- Series C. 40 “Wookey Hole Caves”
- Series K. 22 “Cork”
- Series S. 10 “Miss Continentale No. 1”
- Series C. 73 “Chi-Chi the Giant Panda”
- Serie E 14 “Le Cirque” (partial; 2 views from a French language set)
- Series C. 56 “Dudley Zoo”
- Series C. 61 “Bertram Mills Circus” (improved version of 1st post)
- Series 46 “The Circus” (Common “Day” version)
- Series 46 “The Circus” (Uncommon “Night” version
- Serie M. 21 “Venezia” (Bilingual English/Italian)
- Series H.228 – “The Blue Grotto Temple & Aquarium”
- Series C. 48 “London Airport”
- Series 49 “Dogs”
A Brief History of VistaScreen
It would actually be difficult to write a long history of VistaScreen. As previously mentioned, there’s not a lot out there. As best we can figure, around 1956 by Jack and Jeff Spring, two brothers who were already in business in London, were on a hunt. Their original company, the Capital Paper Company, was looking to diversify – specifically into artistic nude images, which were increasingly in demand after the Second World War. While hunting for photographers to create the necessary images, they ran into Stanley Long.
The Company and The Concept
Long and the Spring Brothers started up VistaScreen, likely in the latter part of 1956. Curiously, no articles of incorporation appear to be publicly available online. In any case, the concept was simple: people were swept up in the ViewMaster craze of the time, but ViewMaster reels were expensive. Photographers traveled all around the world, using color film to capture stereo pairs of exotic things that most people would never see in person. The ability to view such things at home was not new – classic Holmes-style viewers & cards had been available for nearly a century. But ViewMaster was constantly producing sets at an affordable rate. And people were buying them. Lots of them.
So VistaScreen aimed to be something that ViewMaster was not – Anglocentric. The founders felt that the Big American Company was overlooking a lot of interesting content on the British Isles. Assuming that half of their customers were Very Proud Brits, and the other half were tourists and moderate Brits, they were about 75% right. Views of circuses, zoos, castles, and aeroplanes are universally interesting. Tourists visiting locations where exclusive sets could be purchased after a paid-for tour – even if an aeroplane is more interesting – could be enticed through the exclusivity. However, some topics that were available to the general public can only be described as supremely British. These series would only appeal to the most hard-core Anglophiles.
British Subjects for British Subjects
Fifteen years out from the London Blitz, and 38 years after the Armistice, there was a lot of pride in the United Kingdom. There was also a lot of change – the aristocracy had begun its inevitable decline, and many of the great historic houses were opened up to tourists. This helped to keep the lights on – and provided VistaScreen with a lot of new ground to cover. ViewMaster certainly wasn’t sending their photographers to these manors and estates. Proper stances for cricket probably wouldn’t be of interest to an American boy. And while the UK population was less than one-third of the American population in 1956, the British Isles had 5 times as many “model villages’ as the USA. So let’s take a look at some of the more Anglocentric views put out by VistaScreen:
There might be a more stereotypically British topic than cricket – but since I’ve never seen “VistaScreen xyz ‘Tea Time – Crumpets and Biscuits'” in print, these should prove my point well enough. (Says the guy who’s watching a favorite Inspector Morse episode for the millionth time whilst blogging.) It’s entirely conceivable that a young American might enjoy a series of 10 images from a notable match. It’s inconceivable that they would enjoy a series of 10 images showing proper cricket stances. But this is part of VistaScreen’s weird charm.
Stanley Long and His Process
Stanley Long was already quite accomplished by the time he joined the Spring Brothers in founding VistaScreen. Previously, he had served as a photographer in the RAF. Later, he would find work in studios and assisting big-name fashion photographers. But he was an ambitious young man; he wanted to be shooting for himself. And since he owned a 1920s Heidoscop plate-back camera, he was already equipped to make stereographic imagery. Now all he would need would be a process to print with, a viewer that displayed the final product, and a list of sites.
Long took his inspiration from small-format glass-plate positives, which could be easily reduced from 6×13 cm glass-plate negatives. The problem – easily solved, as it turns out – was the lack of viewer for cards in this size. Long’s solution to this problem: he designed his own viewer:
Printed 45×107 mm cards could be inserted into the slot sideways, which would help flatten out any curvature, and the viewer could be folded up for easy storage. Best of all, they were cheap. They were cheap to manufacture, and they were sold for cheap – because the money would be in the cards.
This creative young photographer quickly devised an entire process for the production of VistaScreen series packets. First, he would choose the ten official images (from up to 60 that would be shot on a trip). Then, he would arrange them onto a single glass plate in order to make a preliminary contact negative. Next, he would mask them, insert the titles, and black out the areas which were supposed to be blank on the card. Finally, he would create a master negative, from which a sheet would be printed, cut, and sleeved.
Stanley Long immediately drew up a lengthy list of places that could be photographed during a day trip: caves, zoos, model villages, railroads, and stately houses all made the list. But beyond simply being easy to reach, a lot of these locations had souvenir kiosks. These kiosks could sell VistaScreen cards, sometimes (by special financial arrangement) exclusively. Thus, there was a natural synergy here. ZSL London Zoo notably put in a very large order for the set featuring their animals, which is amusing considering the poor quality of that series.
Notably absent were the holiday camps which lined the coasts in the North. While I’ve seen a couple of cards online which indicate that such things did exist, the natural synergy there would have made them a logical subject. After all, the 1950s were pretty much the heyday of the holiday camps. But as far as I know of, no full sets focused on the camps exist. Plenty of other subjects do, however, and Long quickly started producing them incredibly rapidly. Within a year, Long had visited, photographed, and released series focused on over 50 locations.
As Long checked boxes off his list, he broadened his reach, and started producing sets in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland – and at some point the company started producing views in other countries as well. Long was raking in the money, as were the Spring Brothers, who had a more passive role in the company. It’s likely that other photographers took at least some of the stereo pairs that VistaScreen released. But Long was the driving force here – and soon he would drive VistaScreen off the rails.
The Downfall of Classic VistaScreen
Behind the scenes, tensions were boiling between Long and the Springs. Because Long received a £17 weekly stipend, royalties, and a share of the company, the brothers thought he was making too much. But Long felt he wasn’t making enough – after all, he was doing the bulk of the work, while the Springs were behind the scenes, having fulfilled their primary obligation in providing startup funds.
The next bit of the story becomes a bit hazy – due to two conflicting accounts. The way Long told it, he left the company, and the Springs were lost without him. The only option left was for them to sell the company to Weetabix. Alternately, the Springs claimed that Long became increasingly demanding, leading them to take their majority stake and sell out to Weetabix without any input from Long – and that he never resigned. Either way, they did not part on amicable terms.
Weetabix stereoviews probably account for a majority of the VistaScreen cards left in the world today; one was given away with each box for years. These cards were cheaply made, outlandishly colored lithographs. They demonstrate no real photographic talent, and they don’t merge terribly well. Thus, it should come as no surprise that they’re not particularly collectable. In fact, a set of over 100 (of the 150 produced) recently failed to sell on eBay for $25. I know I didn’t bid. And after a few years of these promotions, Weetabix quietly retired the VistaScreen brand.
Questions With No Answers
For every thing that we know about VistaScreen, there are a dozen things we don’t. Thus, I would like to ask you – the reader – to contribute any information you may have come across on the topics below, or on any others. For example, if you’ve got evidence of the existence of a set not in the list – contact me! (And if you own the set and are willing to part with it – all the better!) If you have anything to contribute to the media gallery when it goes live – contact me! Or if you just want to trade theories on VistaScreen and its history – reach out!
Alternate VistaScreen Photographers
It seems highly likely that some VistaScreen series were photographed by people other than Stanley Long. Thus, the company must have hired outside photographers. But who? There isn’t a single reference anywhere to a photographer’s name. Indeed, the cards themselves bear no authorship information. Who, then, took the stereo pairs to build the cards from? Whilst researching the 3-part series I put out on the Bertram Mills Circus, I came across numerous “I was the daughter of…” or “My grandfather was…” notes on various websites. But when I went looking for relatives of VistaScreen photographers, I spent the better part of an hour finding nothing.
Foreign Topics, Markets, and Languages
Clearly, there are VistaScreen series that were marketed exclusively to people who speak languages other than English. Thus, there were foreign markets for these views. But where were these markets? Were the “Le Cirque” cards sold to the circus in question, to re-sell at their merch booths?
Another oddity is that, while Series K.21 “Venice” exists on some of the order forms I have accumulated, Series K.21 “Venezia” is sitting in Box 2 of my rows of VistaScreen boxes. Thus, either they had two packages (market dependant) for the same set of bilingual cards, or everybody who ticked the box for “Venice” received “Venezia” instead. In any case, this set is bilingual – so why do I have a French Serie E.36 “Avions” and two British Series 44 “Aeroplanes” that contain the exact same images? The French series captions are in French, and the British series has English captions. What gives? Why were they not all bilingual? Does it have something to do with marketing?
What Became of Stanley Long?
Getting back to photographers for a moment, whatever happened to Stanley Long after his stint with VistaScreen came to an end? It’s hard not to wonder if he’s the same Stanley Long who was known as the king of British sexploitation films. The linked BBC obituary from 2012 doesn’t mention VistaScreen – but it does mention a stint in the RAF and an early penchant for nude photography. This does raise some interesting possibilities – from a stereographer looking at cricket poses to a sex film king? Now that would make an interesting biopic!
Where are the VistaScreen Archives?
Creating these sets, Long (and possible other photographers) had to have created quite an interesting backlog of outtakes. And there are so many unanswered questions that could be answered by a few days with the VistaScreen archives! For example, something resembling a legitimate chronology could be established. While it is possible to establish a tentative, and very partial, chronology by comparing different order forms and ephemera, this is far from definitive. Were the numerous sets shot at ZSL London Zoo shot on the same day?
Aside from that, the archives could give us photographers’ names, unreleased sets, a complete series list, and so much more. But there is a problem here – namely, that nobody seems to know where these archives are located. Presumably, they’re sitting in the basement of some Weetabix warehouse somewhere. Or perhaps the Spring Brothers took the original negatives when Weetabix decided to create their own images. In any case, it seems as if there are no real leads to follow as regards the VistaScreen archive.
As demonstrated in the “Day Version” and “Night Version” of Series 46 “The Circus”, in at least one case VistaScreen switched out one set of images for another, keeping the designation and title. Why? Was it, as suggested in the posts, potentially motivated by the racially insensitive depictions of American Indians? By popular demand for more “under the Big Top” action? Did the master negative plate break? And if so, why didn’t they just create another one from the original 6×13 cm negatives? Are there any other series which display alternate versions?
What other sets are out there?
There have to be VistaScreen sets out there that have yet to be “discovered” by the stereographic community. So the first question on my mind is – what are we missing? I have several series that are not listed on any order forms that I’ve obtained, nor mentioned anywhere online. I’m sure other people do to. So please – don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any more information!
By Way of Conclusion
My own personal obsession with VistaScreen began with the acquisition of a partial Series 46 “The Circus” a long time back. It only grew stronger the more I learned, while trying to track down that last elusive card. In learning about Long, the various subjects, the nudie sets, and so on, I became more and more intrigued. And all the more so when I was able to confirm the existence of a second Series 46 “The Circus”, as well as foreign-language views – and that was just a couple of months back!
So I hope that you will join me in sorting this all out. I have every intention of regularly updating this page with any new information that comes my way. And you can play an integral part in that, by way of sending on any new information that comes your way. It would be incredibly helpful to those of us who enjoy the VistaScreen format to have a single resource by which to learn about VistaScreen, the people involved (we know just about nil about the Spring Brothers, for example), and the variety of VistaScreen cards available. So keep on reading, and I’ll keep on writing!