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Women's Views: The Narrative Stereograph in Nineteenth-Century America

by Melody Davis
University of New Hampshire Press, Durham, NH, 2015
256 pp., illus. 16 col, 139 b/w., with 3D viewer. Trade, $90.00; paper, $40.00
ISBN: 978-1-61168-838-2; ISBN: 978-1-61168-839-9.

Reviewed by Jane Hutchinson
Transtechnology Research, Plymouth University. UK


Melody Davis draws her reader in at the outset with an account of women sharing images in a domestic setting. This nicely sets the scene for the discussion that follows. This is presented in two parts, following an Introduction in which she explains the context of her research into narrative stereographs as women's histories, photographic history, visual culture, and American studies. In Part One: Reading the View, the reader is provided with a brief history and overview of the principles of stereoscopic viewing, stereoscopes, and stereographs. This is followed by discussions of narrative stereo views in terms of their audience and the industry that manufactured and supplied them. In Part Two: The Genres, Davis presents in turn her analysis of views in the categories of "kids", marriage, and erotic stereographs, then finally a discussion of gender roles and women's position in society at the beginning of the twentieth century in a chapter she calls Gender Bunglers: Bachelors, New Women and Old Men.

Davis decided at the outset of her research that narrative stereo views were made for an audience of women. She describes her own first encounter with stereographs (a gift from her aunt handed down through the women of her family) as full of wonder, having previously assumed that "such crude image forms" were not worthy of study. Davis goes on to explain that "ordinary folk" like her ancestors would not have had access to 'high art', inferring their lack of sophistication and consequential susceptibility to the commercial imperatives that drove the rapid expansion of the industry producing stereoscopes and stereo views. But it would not have made any sense to access two-dimensional 'works of art' through this medium, and the nineteenth century public were far from naive in their appreciation of art. They lived in an increasingly image-rich society, where reproductions of paintings, ceramics, and sculptures were widely distributed in the form of engravings, chromolithographs, and photographs (and for three dimensional works, stereographs). The popularity of a multitude of illustrated magazines of this period indicates the desire of "ordinary folk" to engage with art, to cut images out of the pages, and hang them on the walls of their homes, or paste into scrap albums. In fact, the heavier weight and coloured (from the 1880s forwards) pages inserted into some periodicals appear to lend themselves specifically for this purpose.

Davis proposes that looking at stereographs provided their users with an immersive and desirable experience from which they 'safely return home' when they put down their stereoscope viewers. She presents the stereoscope as courting a "deep looking" in two senses. The first that required by the observer who is flattered by her ability to read the codes the views presented, and second variously as a malleable, volumetric, and uncanny space. But Davis' effort to demonstrate the affective dimension of the stereo-viewing experience is somewhat limited by the book's format. It is accompanied by a cardboard foldout stereo-viewer. This can be used, but with varying degrees of success given the difficulty of holding the large paperback steady and pages flat. Davis has selected 14 colour reproductions of stereo-view cards presented on eight semi-gloss pages. These are duplications of images included elsewhere to illustrate her text. The choice of cream paper for this publication means the other 130 or so half-tone reproductions of stereo-view cards are rather disappointing, so perhaps the promise on the cover of the book is of its being 'lavishly illustrated' is a little misleading.

Examples of stereo views are primarily drawn from the 1860s, 1870s, and then from the mid 1890s into the first decade of the twentieth century. Curiously only a single image, dated 1881, represents the 1880s. Perhaps this reflects the falling out of fashion of a previously popular pastime, or is there some other reason? An explanation is not offered in the text. The images are carefully chosen to support her discussion, much of which is concerned with a narrative told through a series of views, but we are not provided with reproductions of any complete sets. It is a little frustrating too that the text includes references to images that are not present while images are included that appear to have no related commentary in the text.

Davis' enjoyably creative and colourfully descriptive writing brings to mind the style of many newspapers, periodicals, and magazines produced during the second half of the nineteenth century. For example, in her concluding remarks about Erotic Views where she claims, "A general confusion arose over what public women or private lives meant. Desire, meanwhile, detached from its tacit subordination to sentimentalism and went shopping, meandering about feminine acculturation, collecting gazes, meeting girls" (p. 173). There is no doubt however about her thorough scholarship although it is a little undermined in places by rather fanciful readings of the images and a tendency towards generalisation. Overall though, Davis presents a comprehensive analysis of women's experiences as consumers of 'stories' told through stereo images and shared in the privacy of domestic settings.

Having read the book, I do still wonder why the stereograph was so popular for this particular viewing experience? Perhaps it provided for a nineteenth century audience a combination of today's slightly surreptitious TV mediated observation of domestic interiors and imagined lives, plus the appeal of photo-story relationships played out in the pages of women's magazines. Davis explains the narrative views were for individual consumption. This is true in as much as only one person at a time could look at each view in its stereoscopic form, and some might have been viewed in private and intimate settings. But she also tells us how the viewing often took place with others, that the cards and viewer were passed around, discussed, laughed at, and shared. So the images could be enjoyed without the stereo effect, just as we most often see them now. Davis recognises that her interpretations are inevitably limited by her subject's portrayal of "… domestic scenes [that] formed a visual lexicon for white, middle class women." But, perhaps images of their cluttered domestic space provided the layers of objects necessary for enhancing the stereo effect and so contributed to the popularity of the genre.

In the structure of the book Davis separates the mechanisms of viewing from the views and firmly places this particular genre of view within the domestic setting of its viewer. The dark humour and melodrama of the narrative stereograph is a very particular form of imagery of the domestic environment. The cover blurb claims that stereo views were created for and marketed primarily to women in domestic settings and as such represent one of the best sources for addressing the flow of historical change in women's lives. However, this argument overlooks the fact that stereographs were not produced and marketed by women. They depict fictional situations that appear to give women the upper hand but in a reality where they do not have it, so the last laugh is against the women that still did not have a voice. In this sense these 'women's views' might be thought of as the weapons of a particular time and place in the 'battle of the breeches' that has been played out in images since at least the sixteenth century.

In this book, Davis examines the portrayal in narrative stereo-view cards, of women and gender roles in the United States during the second half of the 19th century. In her conclusion she comments that her text is "…but a beginning in giving shape to the great diversity of narrative views" (p. 199). Even as "a beginning," it makes a significant contribution to a less well-explored genre of the history of photography and women's portrayal in photographs. Comprehensive endnotes, a bibliography, and an index all contribute to the value of this book. A list of illustrations would have been a useful inclusion. The book, which is the outcome of an academic research project, is accessible to and would be enjoyed by anyone interested in the history of photography, or the lives of women in nineteenth century America.

Last Updated 1 May 2016

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