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3D and Animated Lenticular Photography: Between Utopia and Entertainment

by Kim Timby
De Gruyter "Studies in Theory and History of Photography," Vol. 5, Berlin, Germany, 2015
306 pp., illus. 154 b/w and col. Paper, 59.99GBP; e-book (EPUB), 59,95GPB; eBook (Pdf), 59.99 sGBP
ISBN: 978-3-11-041306-9; ISBN 978-3-11-044795-8; ISBN 978-3-11-044806-1.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

As Kim Timby remarks in the opening page of her (fascinating) book, we are all very familiar with lenticular photography, without always knowing very well what it is and how it works (in that regard, there is definitely a strong relationship with the more recent technique of hologram photography). A simple definition could be:

"They [i.e. lenticular images, J.B.] are regularly used on packaging (DVD boxes were a recent favorite), as catchy gift cards, or as postcards that make visual puns as they are tilted. Examined closely, these images have a distinctive finely ridged plastic surface comprise of miniature lenses; the lenses ensure that separate views, interlaced underneath, are perceived individually from different angles" (p. 9).

The major aim of lenticular photography is to remediate photography in such a way that it becomes capable of simulating what is generally lacking, namely depth and movement. Hence the notions of "3D" and "animated" in the title of the book), and to achieve the dream of complete and integral realism (here defined in terms of "perceptual realism", i.e. that kind of realism that mimics as perfectly as possible standard human perception – the ultimate form of this kind of realism in the field of photography implying other features as well, such as color, sound and "feel", as imagined for instance in Huxley's Brave New World.

Lenticular photography, which appears after the stereoscopic craze of the second half of the 19th century, is a form of "autostereoscopy", that is a single ("auto-") image producing 3D or animated effects (or both of them) similar to the effects generated by the various types of stereoscopic techniques that were used before, but will certainly not disappear after the rise of lenticular photography, which did not prove capable of becoming a real substitute for other forms of 3D or animated images and techniques (in order to avoid misunderstandings, it may be useful to underline that "animated" generally refers to the fact the lenticular combination of various images helps induce an effect of change from one state of affairs to another, subsequent state of affairs, such as for instance the representation of a wink). The story of lenticular photography is both very complex and a largely unknown, and there is definitely a relationship between both aspects, as Kim Timby convincingly explains in this study which discloses an important yet almost forgotten but very long chapter in the history of photography. Today's scholars and users may tend to believe to lenticular photography was nothing less than a kind of gimmick, one of the lowest forms of popular and commercial kitsch in mechanically produced images, but the history of this cultural form as reconstructed in this books demonstrates its crucial role in the larger history of perceptual realism.

Timby clearly and cleverly explains the technical transformations of lenticular photography, the various devices to produce images that could be reproduced as autostereoscopic images as well as the various ways in which these pictures were actually used (as autonomous prints, as reprinted in magazines, on display for publicity aims, implemented in all kind of gadgets, etc.). In addition, she also explains the extreme cultural and social diversity of the phenomenon and its dramatic changes over time (roughly speaking between the first years of the 20th Century and the emergence of digital photography, which will bring the adventure of lenticular photography to an end). A key element in this regard is the unstable balance between "utopia" and "entertainment". On the one hand, lenticular photography meets the deeply rooted desire of realistic images and the use of photography as a tool of the perfect visual (if not multisensory) illusion. On the other hand, the gap between traditional, that is 2D and fixed images and the always marginal and institutionally marginalized lenticular images, which can combine 3D and animation, is so strong that the entertainment aspect of the latter is often foregrounded to the expense of their allegedly strong realism. Timby demonstrates that both functions are always intertwined, even if the first half of the Century puts a stronger emphasis on realism while later decades give more weight to the fun factor.

This decline of realism as the global horizon of lenticular photography is astonishing, but Timby describes very well how after the Second World War the focus of 3D and animated photography rapidly shifted from utopia to entertainment. First of all, almost all attempts to create a viable business model for lenticular photography in a realistic perspective had proved rather unsuccessful, and this for many reasons: the technical flaws of the images offered to possible buyers, the impossibility to satisfactorily represent certain subjects (lenticular photography was excellent for portrait photography, but very poor for panoramic views, for example), the unattractively high costs of the images (which strangely enough did not prevent the technology to be quite successful during the German occupation of France), the difficulties in manufacturing the sophisticated cameras that were needed to produce lenticular images, and, more generally, the changes in the broader cultural context, such as for instance the appearance of competing media (the need for animated lenticular images can only drop when cinema becomes a mainstream medium), a growing suspicion towards technology (which after the massive war destructions loses its aura of the modern sublime) or the difficulty to materially implement the screen technology needed for lenticular images in modern mass media (the attempts to include lenticular prints in magazines proved a dead end: the screens needed to secure the 3D or animated effect were either too thick, which prevented the reader to easily flip through the pages, or too thin, which caused a dramatic collapse of the special effect properties of the images). For all these reasons, lenticular photography thus turned to other forms of commercialization that severed its ties with individual buyers. 3D and animated images were very successful in the 1960s as a publicity asset in point of sale displays, where it was possible to provide the viewer with the appropriate technological devices that were necessary for a correct viewing of the images. However, this use of lenticular images did not open the door to mass consumption: customers did see lenticular images and were seduced by them, but nobody was actually buying what was just a promotional device. Besides, lenticular photography was swallowed by other forms of the publicity business that discovered the alluring power of 3D and animated pictures as premium items. The results for lenticular photography were similar. Lenticular key cards, for instance, were a hype in the 1960s, but only when given away for free, as a bonus offered to the purchase of other goods, while 3D postcards, given the difficulty to correctly represent many types of subjects, did never manage to escape the ghetto of highly stereotypical if not rather silly images.

Despite the great efforts of many inventors and businessmen, some of whom succeeded in keeping their lenticular business afloat for some time, yet never in a really sustainable way, despite also the vital importance for the lenticular technique in light of what photography actually means as a social and cultural phenomenon (photography as short-cut for perceptual realism), and despite the longtime fascination of scholars for this type of images, 3D and animated photography has never been a success story. Thanks to this book, however, it will remain part of the history of photography. Timby has achieved a tremendous archival research, not just for pioneering France (the primary focus of her work), but also for the international impact and distribution of lenticular photography, and the theoretical and contextual framing of her research is admirable. This is a book that will prove key to both cultural historians and technology historians and whose emphasis on the commercial dimensions of photographic techniques is a good counterweight to a purely artistic or strictly technological approach of the medium. That, finally, the study is very pleasantly written and wonderfully illustrated (in 2D, but the images are so well printed that we can easily imagine depth and movement) is another reason to look at lenticular photography without prejudices.

Last Updated 4th October 2016

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