Photo Focus: Standard Scenic Company, Stereograph (Taj Mahal)

Welcome to Photo Focus, where I examine a single photograph. These short essay’s will give a greater insight into the individual image beyond its context within a group of photographs.Furthermore, this is inspired by an idea a professor of mine always discussed in graduate school. He would talk about what about the photograph brought the viewer in and kept his or her attention. I discuss what personally draws me to the particular photograph and hope that that gives you an entrance as well.


This week I am taking a different approach to the Photo Focus. Instead of looking at a photograph made for art’s sake, I am examining a photograph made to be mass produced and sold across the Western world. Above, you see a photograph of a stereograph. A stereograph is a double photograph of something. The photographs are taken with a camera that has two lens next to one another. The result is a pair of photographs that are just slightly misaligned. When you view this card through a stereo viewer the image becomes three-dimensional.

Sir Charles Wheatstone came up with the idea for to place two slightly different images next to one another to create a three-dimensional image in 1833 (, accessed: 09/30/2016). Though stereo technology has not improved William Henry Fox Talbot and a Mr. Collen made the first stereo photographs in 1834 (, accessed: 09/30/2016). Wheatstone’s viewing apparatus combined the two images with the use of two mirrors (, accessed: 09/30/2016). However, it was Sir David Brewster’s stereoscope, invented in 1849, that came to dominate the market and the viewer that all other companies modeled theirs after (ibid). This new viewer employed lenticular (lenses) technology instead of mirrors, this meant the viewer looked through a viewer much like a pair of binoculars. Around the late 1940’s early 1950’s the stereo camera was invented and the stereo photographs became popular. They remained popular into the 1910’s. These stereo photographs made it possible for viewers to see the larger world in three-dimensions, which I am sure caused many to want to travel.

The stereograph above consists of two photographs mounted on a thick card. The company name and location, Standard Scenic Company, Meadville PA are located vertically along the left and right sides of the card. Bellow the photograph on the right hand side is the card number (1302), the title (Taj Mahal, Agra, India) and the copyright information (1906 by W.S. Smith). The photographs here are of the Taj Mahal. The photographer was positioned on the platform near what is known as the entrance gate to the Taj. The camera lens is positioned exactly in the center so that the symmetry of the Taj Mahal and the garden are plainly visible. The base of the Taj is positioned just below the central axis of the photograph. The photograph creates an optical allusion, the water fountain and pathways extend for such a distance they seem to meet the Taj’s base in the middle of the frame but they do not. The edges of the path are lined with large un-manicured trees. The one point perspective of the garden directs the viewer’s attention to the monument. All the parts of the structure are visible. In the center of the building is the multi-storied entryway. On either side of the entryway are two pointed arch niches stacked one on top of the other. It is visible in the photograph that the Taj is not square, it is actually an octagonal shape, but all sides are not the same size. These corners repeat the stacked niche design. The large central dome rises out of the building. It is surrounded on the four corners by chhatris or umbrella topped pavilions. In the photograph all four minarets are visible and they are also topped with chhatris. They are located in the four corners at the edge of the platform. The sky is a light grey indicating it was a cloudless day in Agra the day the photographs were made.

While in the past the stereographic object was more often viewed through the viewer and seen in three-dimensions, which is less the case today. If you do find a viewer at an antique store they cost around 100 USD. However, many people collect the stereo cards as interesting objects in their own right. I own multiple stereo cards. Including one like the one seen above. The doubling has a nice affect. It is like two for the price of one. It gives you more of the same visual information to study. Perhaps this creates a better understanding of what you are looking at. It can definitely give you a better understanding of photography. As you examine the two photographs closely, you see that each one contains slightly different visual information on its left and right edges. This can help a viewer understand that the photographer is the master of the photograph. It helps break down the wall of truth that photography held up for so long.

If you read this blog post series on a regular basis, you may be asking, “Betsy, why are you drawn to this photograph?” I am drawn to the stereographs in general because they are an easily accessible, tangible piece of photographic history. As for this specific stereograph, I like it because it is the classic view of the Taj Mahal. The Taj floats in the frame like a white cloud in the sky. Looking at the stereo card and other photographs with similar compositions fulled my desire to travel to the Taj. These objects were originally intended to enlighten people about the broader world and to create the desire to travel to exotic places. I think the stereo cards still serve the same function today. As people today collect them, it gives them an understanding of how a natural or historical place looked a little over a hundred years ago. This can provide insight into how people of different countries respect and maintain their heritage both natural and historic. Next time you find yourself in an antique store see if you can find any stereographs, examine one and see what questions is brings to your mind.



By |2016-11-10T20:27:47-06:00October 7th, 2016|Photo Focus|0 Comments

About the Author:

Betsy Williamson is an assistant professor of art in the state of New Mexico. Before coming to New Mexico for this job she was an adjunct professor throughout Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, teaching photography and art appreciation. Between September 2015 and May 2017, she took a break from teaching to pursue art, research and life in India. Now she is back to teaching and part-timing it in India.

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