I've renamed it, but this article appears in Volume 8, Issue 2 of the Graflex Historic Quarterly. Its a presentation of my theories as to why the Stereo Graflex is such a rare camera
With a demonstration of stereo imaging to Queen Victoria at the
Crystal Palace exhibition in 1850, mass market acceptance of stereo
as a legitimate entertainment and documentary medium was assured.
Though by the turn of the century the initial wave of interest had
waned, new innovations were soon to create a second great surge in
interest. The Stereo Graflex, while employing some clever
and innovative features, failed to ride this wave.
This author is not an expert on Graflex cameras, I cannot quote
factory production figures or serial number ranges, but empirical
evidence - gleaned through over a decade of collecting and using
equipment - suggests Stereo Graflex cameras are not rare because
they were all used up. They are probably quite rare because few customers
stepped up to buy them. If the combination of reflex viewing, a fast
focal plain shutter, and light and flexible sheet film were a great
boon to the 2D Graflex, why were these same features passed over
in the stereo market?
The answer to this lies, I believe, in the simple fact by the time the big Graflex hit the market, somebody else had a better answer. It is ironic, and not for the only time in history, the better answer was built on inferior technology. To understand all of this, we must begin by looking at the special requirements of stereo photography.
There are two key issues at work. First, to view a stereo image, we need a viewer which presents the two images to the eyes in a way our brains can use to merge them into a single three dimensional view. This virtually eliminates press use of stereo images. To do any good, every reader must have a viewing device, and for what size image is the viewer designed?
The popular Holmes style parlor stereo card viewers of the day were designed around a standard 3.5 x 7 inch stereo card. Graflex images would have to be arbitrarily cropped to fit, and if Graflex ever made a viewer to support their own format, somebody please sell me one or at least show me what it looked like.
The second important requirement for good stereo is maximum depth of field. While this is not an absolute rule, most any stereo photographer will tell you they shoot the bulk of their images with the lenses stopped way down. Slow film speeds of the day made the Stereo Graflexs fast shutter speeds useless.
So, the press didnt buy stereo cameras because they had no use for stereo, and the public may have passed on the Graflex because there was no practical method provided to view the cameras 5 x 7 inch images. Against this bleak background, we must overlay the concurrent bright looking future of obsolete glass plates. By the time our beloved Graflex was created, the French company of Richard Brothers had already set a standard - based on small simple glass plate cameras and viewers - which would come to dominate the market and survive until WWII.
Richard scored on three fronts. Their cameras were small and portable, suiting them to the active lifestyle of an affluent upper middle class family. I have carried one inside my parka while skiing. Imagine trying that with a big heavy Stereo Graflex! The Richard developed 45 x 107 millimeter image size was rapidly adopted by other manufacturers, so cameras and viewers were interchangeable between brands. While Eastman was winning the negative battle with a flexible film base, Richard took advantage of the fact stereo transparencies view better than stereo prints. In those days, glass was still the way to go for trannys.
Richard overcame the technological disadvantages of glass by providing clever interchangeable glass plate magazine backs (the Graflex "bagchanger" magazines are remarkably similar), and a better viewing experience in the form of transparencies. They overcame any technological advantages in the Graflex camera itself by making wiser choices in what features to incorporate. At the end of the day, composing in the Graflex's stereo viewfinder is nice, but strictly speaking, not necessary. As slow shutter speeds were the norm, Richard actually had an advantage with lighter and cheaper in-lens shutters.
The Richard Verascope line of cameras and accessories was truly impressive. The entry level Le Glyphoscope doubled as camera and viewer. Later Verascopes were offered in configurations from basic fixed focus units to deluxe focusing models. There was even a mechanical self timer available. Viewers ran the gamut from inexpensive hand helds to elegant, magazine fed changing cabinets known as Taxiphotes. A storage cabinet in the Taxiphote base held 300 images, and additional storage cabinets holding up to 2,000 images were cataloged.
Commercial applications for the Graflex did exist, but there were any number of competing 5 x 7 view cameras to overcome. U&U and Keystone, two of the largest American producers of commercial stereo views, must have used at least a few Stereo Graflex cameras. In the 1930s, well after they had been dropped by Graflex, the Tru View Company used Stereo Graflex cameras to shoot original images which were then printed onto film strips.
Is it possible the Stereo Graflex was merely ahead of its time, produced a century too soon? Today, we have fast modern color negative and positive film. High quality achromat viewers, in appropriate sizes, can be bought on the net. With modern lighting technology, it would be simple to build a backlit viewer for color trannys. Its funny, but right now today an intrepid photographer (read kook) could produce truly stunning results.