The Stereoscope and the Stereograph, Part I: The Negative

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"This triumph of human ingenuity is the most audacious, remote, improbable, incredible,--the one that would seem least likely to be regained, if all traces of it were lost, of all the discoveries man has made," Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in the June 1859 issue of The Atlantic.

"It has become such an everyday matter with us, that we forget its miraculous nature, as we forget that of the sun itself, to which we owe the creations of our new art. Yet in all the prophecies of dreaming enthusiasts, in all the random guesses of the future conquests over matter, we do not remember any prediction of such an inconceivable wonder... No Century of Inventions includes this among its possibilities."

What "audacious, remote, improbable, incredible" invention was he talking about? The steam engine? The telegraph? No, the technology that sent Holmes into raptures was photography.

We're going to explore the rest of Holmes meditation on the meaning of photography in four parts. I think this piece is worth this amount of "ink" because it works on so many levels. It comes just before the Civil War, every argument taking on some of the charge of the times. It's also beautiful science writing, precise and informative. As technological analysis, it's unusually and finely observant of the changes in culture that swirled around "the mirror with a memory." The development of photography didn't just change the way people thought about the world, but it made us reevaluate our own visual apparatus and even our own ways of seeing. And finally as futurism, it's totally sold on that early 3D technology, the stereoscope, as the technology that will emerge important. The photograph was a thin, marginal competitor at best. Even the finest minds at their finest moments can't read the future. So, stay tuned.

Now back to Holmes, and this first installment, The Negative.

After introducing us fair readers to his subject with a digression into Greek philosophy, he breaks into a fascinating sequence, alternating precise descriptions of chemical processes with gorgeous descriptions of the effects such elemental combinatorix create. ("Where the daylight was strongest, the sensitive coating of the plate has undergone such a chemical change, that the mercury penetrates readily to the silver, producing a minute white granular deposit upon it, like a very thin fall of snow, drifted by the wind.")

The greatest of the descriptions deals with the negative from which photographic prints are made. After detailing the colloidon development solution, he writes:

Here, then, we have essentially the same chemical elements that we have seen employed in the daguerreotype,--namely, iodine, bromine, and silver; and by their mutual reactions in the last process we have formed the sensitive iodide and bromide of silver. The glass is now placed, still wet, in the camera, and there remains from three seconds to one or two minutes, according to circumstances. It is then washed with a solution of sulphate of iron. Every light spot in the camera-picture becomes dark on the sensitive coating of the glass-plate. But where the shadows or dark parts of the camera-picture fall, the sensitive coating is less darkened, or not at all, if the shadows are very deep, and so these shadows of the camera-picture become the lights of the glass-picture, as the lights become the shadows.

Again, the picture is reversed, just as in every camera-obscura where the image is received on a screen direct from the lens. Thus the glass plate has the right part of the object on the left side of its picture, and the left part on its right side ; its light is darkness, and its darkness is light. Everything is just as wrong as it can be, except that the relations of each wrong to the other wrongs are like the relations of the corresponding rights to each other in the original natural image. This is a negative picture.

Extremes meet. Every given point of the picture is as far from truth as a lie can be. But in travelling away from the pattern it has gone round a complete circle, and is at once as remote from Nature and as near it as possible.

There is truth in perfect wrongness.

And this is a little crazy, but on the margins of Holmes piece about photography, I think we can see the looming Civil War. I won't make you suffer through my close-reading, but the "extremes meet" sounds like a story about North and South. Let's read the photographic negative as the South.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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