The Optics of Science: Early Western Stereographs from The Dr. Martin Bass and Gail Silverman Bass Collection

    Unidentified photographer, The Ghost in the Stereoscope, c1856 (albumen prints mounted on card (stereocard)). Courtesy of the Ryerson Image Centre, Gift of Dr. Martin J. Bass and Gail Silverman Bass, 2014

Presenting photographic objects from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, The Optics of Science includes over 100 stereographic images and related materials from the fields of medical and clinical sciences, anthropology, zoology, astronomy, and spiritualism. The exhibition explores the broad dissemination of Western scientific knowledge production at the height of colonialism in North America, Asia, and Africa.

Stereographs are two near-identical images, mounted on a paper card and viewed as a single three-dimensional image through a stereoscope or stereoviewer. Conceived by the English scientist Charles Wheatstone (1802–1875) in 1828, the new viewing devices flourished in the Western market, particularly among the middle and upper classes. Looking at vivid images through a stereoscope allowed viewers to experience destinations far from home—places considered “exotic” or even worlds farther away, into outer space. This breakthrough invention also provided uses in other fields of interest: medical practitioners employed the medium to investigate microscopic layers of the human body, and followers of the spiritual movement used it to depict visual “evidence” of the afterlife.

At a time of extraordinary industrial, geographical, and technological change, stereographs served both educational and entertainment purposes. Entangled in the colonial-era fascination with scientific “progress” and positivism, the contested nature of these objects is particularly directed toward stereographic images of non-Western people and cultures. Today, under the gaze of a contemporary audience, these images problematize the act of looking—making it both complicated and uncomfortable. They are reminders of imperial conquests in the name of science, and signifiers of presumed knowledge and power. Though historical, these objects belong to a present and future rich with the possibility of new perspectives.

Organized by the 2021–2022 second-year students from Toronto Metropolitan University’s Film + Photography Preservation and Collections Management program. Presented by The Image Centre in partnership with CONTACT