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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Stereographs and News Photography

Stereograph publishers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries at first tended to produce images for “armchair travelers,” who could experience far-flung areas of the world in three dimensions through the stereoscope, the precursor of modern-day “virtual reality” systems. However, many other themes and subjects were explored for the burgeoning stereo market. A major publisher such as Underwood and Underwood produced pictures ranging from American industry and technology to staged “genre” scenes and sequences of sentimental, humorous, and entertainment value, in addition to their standard “educational” documentation of natural, architectural, and historical wonders of the world.

Underwood and Underwood also realized that there was a market for stereographs of current events and news in stereoscopic form, and embarked upon photojournalistic coverage of the Spanish-American War and other military conflicts. However, by 1921 they discontinued their stereo production, sold most of their stereo archive to a competitor, the Keystone View Co., and concentrated on news photography. The National Museum of American History Archives Center’s Underwood and Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection contains some non-stereoscopic news photographs from the 1920s, plus the stereoscopic negatives and interpositives which the company withheld from Keystone, intending to convert them into non-stereo usage.

President Theodore Roosevelt was a favorite subject for Underwood & Underwood and other stereo publishers’ photographers, and the collection contains many portraits of him. The company’s coverage of him extended into the newsworthy events, such as in this high-angle photograph of his 1905 inaugural address and the crowd. Here C.W. White, a photographer for the publisher H.C. White, photographed the festivities, and the glass plate was later acquired by Underwood and Underwood.
Great crowds of people around the Inaugural Stand--Pres. Roosevelt delivering his address. [Active no. 9916 : stereo interpositive,] 1905. Underwood & Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, Archives Center, NMAH.
Notice the cancellation marks on the left image of the stereo pair. Apparently these scratches in the emulsion were intended to prevent Underwood and Underwood from continuing to use the glass plate for producing stereographs, thereby competing with Keystone in this market. Many, although not all, of the stereo glass plates in this collection, were similarly defaced.

A less well-known political figure appears below. He is Fitzhugh Lee, a Confederate cavalry general during the Civil War, who later became the fortieth governor of Virginia, a diplomat, and eventually a U.S. Army major general in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. He was the grandson of “Light Horse Harry” Lee and the nephew of Gen. Robert E. Lee. He was the former Consul General in Havana in 1898 when this portrait of the portly, magnificently mustachioed Lee was taken by a photographer for another stereo publisher, Strohmeyer and Wyman; the negative was acquired later by Underwood and Underwood. One half of the stereo pair is shown here, the other side having been cut and possibly discarded. Lee was appointed military governor of Havana and Pinar del Rio in 1899, and died in 1905, several months after Roosevelt’s inauguration.

Major General Fitzhugh Lee, Ex-Consul General at Havana. Copyright 1898 by Strohmeyer and Wyman. Active no. 21200 : non-stereo photonegative,] 1898. Underwood and Underwood Glass Stereograph Collection, Archives Center, NMAH.
New high-resolution scans for these two images and hundreds of others are available, although the majority of the collection is represented only by low-resolution surrogates. Since the original photographs in the Underwood and Underwood—primarily glass plates—are currently stored offsite, there are challenges in accessing the collection.

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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