Blog Post

On Contextualizing 19th-century Stereocards and Potential Biases

These past few weeks, I have been researching and writing material to analyze and contextualize a small selection of the stereocards as part of my virtual exhibit. I selected these stereocards according to a particular theme or topic that I'm interested in, which is the tension between our concept of photography as a truth-teller and photography as a mediated artform. On one hand, photography is considered a highly realist medium: it very closely resembles the way our own eyes the world (assuming our perception itself is trustworthy, which is a whole other issue). On the other hand, photography is a mediated experience. We see only what the photographer, motivated by his or her own desires and assumptions, wants us to see. My project is interested in illuminating this tension by discussing photography and stereography's (stereophotography) relationship to realism and how that influences the contents of the stereocards. What perspectives are omitted or occluded in a stereograph? What version of "the truth" is being presented to us?

Stereography and stereographers in the 19th century were motivated by several different interests that interacted with or bled into one another. There were scientific or scientific educational interests that were concerned with accurate representation. Even if these interests weren't explicitly recognized, they still underlie the popular conception of stereography as a medium.[1] There were also commercial interests since stereography was very much a business in the 19th century and therefore motivated by what was marketable. Stereographs were commissioned, produced in factory-like conditions, and then sold and distributed in mass quantities. As photographic  equipment became cheaper and more available, the concept of photography as Art—as personal expression and an aesthetic—also began to emerge on the scene around the turn of the century.

 

Personal Bias

My personal interest influences how I analyze each stereocard and what I include or don't include in my project. For example, when writing on the "Along the noted Bowery" stereocard, I wrote about the development of the elevated train—a prominent feature in the stereograph. I was particularly interested in what the stereograph as a whole did not include: the poverty and overcrowding in the area where the stereograph was taken.

As a result, I interpreted the presence of the elevated train according to a popular trope of travel or touristic stereography. In this trope, stereographs include icons of technological innovation (like the elevated train) to present cities as bastions of modernity and progress, glossing over the less palatable effects of industrialization. I also read the elevated train from a class-oriented perspective, noting that reformers saw it as a way to allow the working and middle classes to move to less populated, more sanitary housing (they weren't very successful). But in doing this, I omit other interpretations of the elevated train and other information about the elevated train that readers might find more interesting.

 

Disciplinary Bias

I'm an English major by training but I am analyzing and writing about visual materials and I read sources that were written and published disciplines that are not my own (e.g. History, Art History). When I analyze stereocards, or even secondary sources about stereocards or their contents, I don't have the same disciplinary or methodological training that an art historian or historian would. This could be a disadvantage since I could miss something important without even realizing it. I also sometimes reference 19th-century literature as entry points for understanding a stereograph's content or as further reading. This is purely out of my interest in, and familiarity with, literature as an English major.

That being said, I don't feel completely unqualified—or even unprepared, necessarily—for what I'm doing. The English discipline, as Matthew Kirschenbaum notes in his essay on the close tie between English and Digital Humanities, is particularly open to cultural studies, where scholars study cultural objects that we might not normally think of as "literature." In that sense, it doesn't feel all that strange to be studying stereocards. English is also interested in the relationship between form and content. For literature, that means analyzing how something is written affects the message it communicates. Though stereocards are images, I still think critically about the form-content relationship in my analysis. That has been helpful even if, as noted before, it can't make up for other perspectives. Lastly, and perhaps most obviously, I am reading textual secondary sources and communicating my ideas in textual form. Critical reading skills and writing clearly and concisely have always been part of my English training.

 

Dealing with Bias

Were this a large scale DH project involving an interdisciplinary team of scholars, I might be able to counteract—or at least limit—interdisciplinary bias. Unfortunately, that's not an option. No project can possibly be free of bias and the most we can do is be aware of and admit them (through a blog post or some other kind of documentation). There will, unfortunately, always be biases in ourselves that we can't see.

Ultimately, I think there has to be some level of trust between a scholar and his or her audience. An audience has to trust that a scholar wouldn't deliberately mislead or misinform them and has been as rigorous and transparent as she or he possibly could. And a scholar has to trust that an audience will understand that a scholar's research is only one possible, informed (but necessarily biased) interpretation of many.

 

 


[1]See Laura Burd Schiavo's article, "From Phantom Image to Perfect Vision," in New Media, 1740-1920, for more on contemporary scientific and popular discourse about stereographs.

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