Stereoscopic Photography Encounters the Staircase


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1. Stereoscopic Photography Encounters the Staircase Traversing Thresholds, Borders and Passages The staircase is presented as the architectural component that most…
  • 1. Stereoscopic Photography Encounters the Staircase Traversing Thresholds, Borders and Passages The staircase is presented as the architectural component that most potent- ly embodies thresholds, boundaries and passages due to its diagonal orienta- tion and essence as an intermediary zone. Connections then are made between the kinesthetic requirements of traversing a staircase and viewing a stereosco- pic photograph. From this foundation, the haptic essence of stereoscopic pho- tography is proposed as uniquely qualified medium through which to view a staircase and therefore thresholds, boundaries, and passages within architec- ture. Analyses of stereoviews of staircases in the Palais de Justice in Brussels, the Library of Congress in Washington, and the Palais Garnier (Opéra) in Paris close the essay. ISSN: 1865-7001 urn:nbn:de:0009-21-35992 Juli 2013 #5 "grenzwertig" S. 89-97 Douglas Klahr (Arlington)
  • 2. 90 Interfaces between the Staircase and the Stereoview The topic of thresholds, boundaries and passages not only suggests an empha- sis upon the three-dimensional quint- essence of architecture, but also the fourth dimension of time as measured when one traverses thresholds, bounda- ries and passages. When architectural components are considered, doors and windows first come to mind, but the time element is limited by their pla- nar character: going through a door or window is usually a short moment in time. If one considers space, the time taken to traverse a space is longer, but the notions of threshold and bounda- ry become weaker. Walls, ceilings and floors boldly announce thresholds and boundaries, but going through them is not a routine activity for human beings who lack supernatural powers, thereby mitigating the elements of passage and time. A question then arises: what ar- chitectural component most potently embodies thresholds, boundaries and passages as well as their underlying characteristic of time? A logical answer would be the staircase, and that is the focus of this essay, which concentrates upon internal staircases. Staircases within buildings confound ar- chitectural thresholds and boundaries starting with their most obvious cha- racteristic: their diagonal orientation as they progress from one level to the next. This challenges notions of walls, ceilings and floors as well as the scope of human movement: when other than on a staircase does one's body move in a di- agonal direction through space? If one develops this thought other transgres- sions arise: concepts of beginning/end, here/there, and in/out are extraordina- rily fluid within staircases. In essence, staircases are perhaps the best example of intermediary zones within buildings, quantified not only by the aspects noted above, but also by their raison d'être: to provide passage between levels of a structure. The notion of passage there- fore remains very potent within a stair- case, and passage once again returns us to the dimension of time. This introduces the lens through which staircases are examined in this essay: the time-dependent medium of stereoscopic photography. With the invention of stereoscopic photo- graphs in the second half of the Nine- teenth Century, a major threshold was crossed regarding two-dimensional representations of three-dimensiona- lity. Jean Clair observed that stereo- scopic photography embodied a "di- alectical reversal." In contrast to per- spective, which "consisted in reducing the three-dimensional to the two di- mensions of a stretched canvas", as does non-stereoscopic photography, Clair noted that stereoscopic photo- graphy "allowed one to obtain a pure- ly tri-dimensional configuration."1 The dynamics – and time element – of ste- reoscopy reside in the constantly shif- ting perceptions of depth that are part of the ocular-neuronal exercise neces- sary on the part of the viewer, most of- ten using the so-called Holmes stereo- scope. When the intermediary zone of a stair- case is examined through this medi- um, borders, thresholds, passages and time interface with one another in a particularly rich matrix.2 In a 1982 essay, Rosalind Krauss wrote about the stereoscopic experience: "Organized as a kind of tunnel vision, the experience of deep recession is insistent and inescapable. The experience is all the more heightened by the fact that the viewer's own ambient space is masked out by the optical instrument he must hold to his eyes […] The actual read- justment of the eyes from plane to plane within the stereoscopic field is the repre- sentation of one part of the body of what another part of the body, the feet, would do in passing through real space."3 The kinesthetic eye-foot connection that Krauss makes is important for understanding how stereoscopy em- bodies a threshold between actual and virtual experience. As human beings, our routine means of movement through space is by our legs and feet. A stereoview is a series of receding planes that creates a virtual sense of depth that often is more intense than an actual experience due to this multi- planar aspect. Certain subjects – no- tably human beings – often appear ex- cessively planar, due to clothing that camouflages the contours of torsos and limbs.4 In many instances, the
  • 3. 91 viewer becomes acutely aware of this planarity, and one's eyes shift and re- focus in a manner that is different than when one is shifting one's fo- cus in an actual space. In a sense, a viewer's eyes mimic footsteps, not in the literal sense of moving forward but in a series of discrete, separate movements. This eye-foot connection intensi- fies when a particular form of human movement occurs: climbing up or down a staircase. In his study about stairways, Hans Weidinger begins by referencing Friedrich Mielke's Handbuch der Treppenkunde. Miel- ke wrote that the "ambience of clim- bing stairs is important. One climbs, of course, with the legs, but is guided by the eyes." Weidinger then continu- es with his own thought: "Movement in the staircase is thus not merely a motor action. As in a film, our opti- cal awareness jumps from long-range to a close-up and back again."5 Tra- versing a staircase involves eye-foot coordination to a greater extent than merely walking due to mastering the riser-tread combination, thereby blur- ring the boundaries between vision and bipedal motion. Weidinger makes an analogy between traversing a staircase to film, but a cinema spectator has no choice but to accept the film director's decisions about image sequence. By contrast, a person viewing a stereo- scopic image – of any subject – has freedom of choice to shift one's focus at will. The sequence of planes – and what one decides to focus upon – al- ways is unique with each viewing of a stereoscopic photo. One moves back and forth between receding planes, ex- ponentially increasing the complexity of the eye-foot connection. All these factors converge and create a singularly intense experience of depth in one particular type of stereoview: images of staircases. Even though he did not write about stereoscopy, an observa- tion by John Templer in his study about staircases supplies some crucial context: Holmes Stereoscope. Photo- graph by author, collection of author. Manufactured by Underwood & Underwood c. 1901, this is a pristine, museum-grade example of a Holmes-style stereoscope.
  • 4. 92 "The diagonal line or plane is compa- ratively unusual in the major massing of building components except as a roof cap, and architects have always sought to understand and to tame the vigo- rous, unruly heresy that the diagonal demonstrates within comfortable or- thogonal schema. The nature of the di- agonal is a forceful movement that may threaten the tranquility of the usual or- der and orientation […] The stair is di- agonal by nature, strengthening the connotations of movement implicit in the sequence of risers and treads."6 As Templer notes, it is not merely the di- agonal orientation but also the sequence of risers and treads that summons forth connotations of movement. On a broad- er scale of the metaphysical, the stair- case blurs the boundaries between its many identities. Templer observes that the staircase is chameleon-like, that it "disguises itself to match the interests of the viewer: it is art object, structural idea, manifestation of pomp and man- ners, behavioral setting, controller of our gait, political icon, legal prescripti- on, poetic fancy, or the locus of an epi- demic of cruel and injurious falls."7 Un- mentio-ned is the most obvious identity of a staircase: its raison d'être is to ser- ve not merely as a passage as a corridor might do, but as a passage that traverses the boundaries of architecture, namely, levels. It is the primeval and prime exa- mple of an intermediary zone, especial- ly when the staircase is internal. Stereoscopic versus non-Stereo- scopic Photography Using a stereoscope means that the viewer is bodily involved to an extent that exceeds viewing a painting, non- stereoscopic photograph, or film. This requires a viewer to forfeit any sense of detachment from the viewing pro- cess and the image itself. Moreover, as Laura Burd Schiavo explains, this challenges long-standing conventions in Western pictorial depiction. Schi- avo writes: "By suggesting that vision could be ma- nipulated into causing observers to see what was not really there, and by chal- lenging the equivalence of the exterior world and the retinal image, the stereo- scope suggested a model that ceased to suppress a viewer's subjectivity […] By introducing the body and its productive capacities into the story, the stereoscope contested the idea that vision could be represented geometrically – the basis for Renaissance perspective."8 Because nineteenth-century stereosco- pic photography often has been dis- missed by twenty- and twenty-first- century scholars as little more than an amusing toy for the masses, they miss the point that Schiavo makes. Al- though Martin Jay did not write about stereoscopy,hisobservationsaboutvis­­ual conventions provide further context for the ground-breaking albeit un- derappreciated significance of the me- dium. He reminds us that "beginning with the Renaissance and the scienti- fic revolution, modernity has been nor- mally considered resolutely ocularcen- tric." He then continues, noting "that eye was singular, rather than the two eyes of normal binocular vision. It was conceived in the manner of a lone eye looking through a peephole at the scene in front of it. Such an eye was, moreover, understood to be static, unblinking, and fixating, rather than dynamic […]."9 Rather than being a gimmick, the ste- reoscope heralded a seismic shift in pictorial depiction: it created a natu- ral bridge between normal binocular vision and a binocular medium. In es- sence, for those who were able to grasp its significance, stereoscopy suggested that the monocular tradition of pic- torial depiction in Western art – the norm since the Renaissance – was anything but natural or normal. This discussion calls into question the difference between stereoscopic and non-stereoscopic photographs, and it is here where the dimension of time reenters. John Szarkowski obser- ved: "There is in fact no such thing as an instantaneous photograph. All pho- tographs are time exposures, of shorter or longer duration, and each describes a discrete parcel of time."10 Szarkowski's point seems particularly relevant to stereoscopic photography: in addition to time exposures needed to create the images, further discrete parcels of time are needed for the viewer to merge the dual images into one. There is an intri- guing elasticity to these interconnected aspects of time, for in a sense, the ste- reoscopic experience is a form of time
  • 5. 93 travel: the viewer travels back and forth through multiple planes of depth. This further confounds notions of what photography means. Christian Metz observed that "movement and plurality both imply time, as opposed to the time- lessness of photography, which is com- parable to the timelessness of the uncon- scious and of memory."11 Yet movement and plurality are the defining hall- marks of viewing a stereoscopic pho- tograph. The process demands a level of consciousness not required when viewing non-stereoscopic images, and time defines the process. Onefurtherissueneedstobeaddressed: what is the lexis of stereoscopic photo- graphy? Christian Metz identified the difference in lexis between non-ste- reoscopic photography and cinema as follows: "The lexis is the socialized unit of reading, of reception: in sculp- ture, the statue; in music, the 'piece'. Obviously the photographic lexis, a si- lent rectangle of paper, is much smaller than the cinematic lexis."12 The lexis of stereoscopic photography, therefore, would seem to reside in an interme- diary zone – interestingly analogous to that of a staircase – between that of non-stereoscopic photography and that of cinema. It is larger than the "silent rectangle of paper" yet does not embody the mechanized movement of cinema. Victor Burgin noted that in non-ste- reoscopic photography, the eye "cannot move within the depicted space (which offers itself precisely to such movement), it can only move across it to the points where it encounters the frame."13 By contrast, the eye moves between dif- ferent planes of depth in stereoscopy: the intense perception of depth is what defines stereoscopy's lexis, and this in- troduces the notion of what constitutes the haptic. The Haptic Quintessence of Stere- oscopic Photography In her book, Atlas of Emotion, Giuli- ana Bruno writes: "As the Greek ety- mology tells us, haptic means 'able to come into contact with'". As a func- tion of the skin, the haptic – the sen- se of touch – constitutes the recipro- cal contacts between us and the envi- ronment, both housing and extending the communicative interface. She then delves into a deeper analysis of what the haptic comprises: "Thus, while the basis of touch is a reach- ing out – for an object, a place, or a per- son (including oneself) – it also implies the reverse: that is, being touched in re- turn […] as a receptive function of skin, touch is not solely a prerogative of the hand. It covers the entire body, inclu- ding the eye itself, and the feet, which establish our contact with the ground. Conceived as such a pervasive enterpri- se, the haptic sense actually can be un- derstood as a geographic sense in a glo- bal way: it 'measures,' 'interfaces', and 'borders' our relation to the world."14 Once again, a connection is made be- tween eyes and feet, yet we need to push further, to ask ourselves what is created when one views space through a stereoscope. Giuliana Bruno refers to "psycho-corporeal" space, and that is precisely what is created when one sees a stereoview that successfully cre- ates a haptic experience. Perhaps the most famous quote in the history of stereoscopy – written by Oliver Wen- dell Holmes in 1859 – captures the haptic essence of the medium. Holmes wrote: "The first effect of looking at a good photograph through the stereo- scope is a surprise such as no painting ever produced. The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture. The scraggy branches of a tree in the fore- ground run out at us as if they would scratch our eyes out."15 Holmes was de- scribing the reciprocal reaching out by both viewer and subject to which Bru- no referred 148 years later in her book. As Angus Forbes has noted in his re- search on visual media, the notion of the "haptic eye" is a way of speaking metaphorically: "Not to be confused with haptic percep- tion, the way we literally experience touch, haptic visuality refers to view- ing which, usually because of the lack of distinction in the image, draws upon other forms of sense experience. Haptic visuality is thus a 'tactile' way of seeing and knowing which more directly invol- ves the viewer's body. The eyes metapho- rically function as organs of touch."16 In his study of the writings of French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty,
  • 6. 94 John Bannon notes that the "model of corporeal synthesis that he [Merleau- Ponty] offers now is that of the con- verging of the eyes in the vision of a particular object." More explicitly, he speaks of the movement from double to focused vision in the fixing of an object by sight: "[…] Merleau-Ponty says the double vision that precedes fo- cusing is sensed as disequilibrium and that this disequilibrium is, in turn, an- ticipation of the act that will restore equilibrium."17 Neither Merleau-Ponty nor Bannon wrote about stereoscopy, but what they depict describes the ste- reoscopic experience. Daniela Bertol connected this expe- rience with the writings of Merleau- Ponty. What she states also reinforces the point about subjectivity that Laura Burd Schiavo made, which was quoted earlier in this essay. Bertol writes: "The stereoscopic effect, which causes the perception of depth, is given by our binocular vision. Of the three physical dimensions of space – width, height and depth – depth is the most 'subjective', be- cause it is related more to the way our visual perception works than to the phy- sical reality of the objects of our percep- tion. The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty defines depth as 'the most existential of all dimensions' [...]."18 The stereoscopic experience is a height- ened, conscious, subjective process that passes traverses the threshold between visual disequilibrium and equilibrium, a process in routine daily vision that goes unnoticed. The viewer synthesizes the experience, which re- sults in a psycho-corporeal space that can be extraordinarily haptic. This notion of corporeal synthesis was ex- pressed by Mary Jane Appel in 1995 in a thesis about stereoscopy. Appel wrote: "By mentally and visually re- constructing a world, the viewer belie­ vably stepped through the looking glass, and crossing over into an altered reali- ty, a reality synthesized rather than de- picted."19 The stereoscopic image is not a depiction, like a perspectival image: it is an experience that is synthesized by the viewer who creates a psycho- corporeal space. The Convergence of Medium and Architectural Component: Stereoviews of Staircases From the 1860s until the First World War, the best stereoscopic photogra- phers worked for major international stereoscopic firms such as Keystone and Underwood & Underwood. Since they usually were assigned to photograph major public buildings in European and American cities, views of internal staircases almost exclusively focus upon monumental examples of this building component. A good starting point to examine how borders, thresholds and passages are traversed occurs in a par- tial view of a staircase in the Palais de Justice in Brussels by Joseph Poelaert. When viewed without a stereoscope it is not exceptional, and we assume that the photographer was standing on the sec­ ond level. Indeed, the image viewed in this manner is rather straightforward, Stereoview, The Grand Staircase, Palais de Justice, Brussels. Keystone View Company, c. 1883. Collection of author.
  • 7. 95 an almost bilaterally symmetric com- position that appears rather bland.20 Yet when viewed through a stereoscope, a profound sense of disequilibrium en- ters the picture, for the haptic quality of the perception of depth makes the final few steps in the bottom of the image not merely rush toward us, but also appear to continue under our feet. T
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