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What Is Stereo?

Kaiser (Emperor) Panorama

There is very little english language information on the Kaiser-Panorama. Patented by A. Fuhrmann around 1890, the system consisted of a multi-station viewing apparatus and sets of 8.5 x 17 stereo slides. One description states the Panorama had 25 viewing stations and held 50 images. I have seen a recreation with 12 stations. Whatever the number of stations, they were arranged in a circle, and images were held in a rotating drum which indexed behind the viewing lenses.

Parlors were set up in numerous locations, and for a fee, customers could sit and enjoy sets of views. The concept seems to have been popular during the first quarter of the 20th century, but ultimately fell victim to the moving picture. It is unclear to me if the system was seen outside of Germany. Its popularity may be gauged by a reference to some 50,000 total images in the Fuhrmann library. Contrast this against the 300,000 odd Verascope images cataloged by Richard.

Today there are a hand full of working Kaiser-Panoramas, both original and reproductions. A twelve station recreation recently sold at auction for 24,000 Euros, plus commission. I was lucky enough to obtain a set of over 400 hand colored Kaiser-Panorama WWI images. These slides, contained in tin boxes, are the only WWI stereo images of German origin I have seen.

Although by the time of the first world war photography, and even cinematography, had become common, stereo images of the war were limited in number. Not surprisingly, the French had the most prolific coverage. The British perspective appears to be limited to the Realistic Travels set of stereo cards. In America, Fisherview and "Over There" offered slide sets. Keystone offered a fairly extensive library of stereo cards. The Keystone and Over There sets were clearly purchased French images. I believe Fisherview may have shot some of their own photos, while the Realistic Travels sets were clearly shot from the British perspective.

During the war, it was illegal for British soldiers to carry cameras. I have some personal images shot by a British medical officer, so either the moratorium did not apply to officers, or he ignored the rules. I also have a set photographed by a French officer. I have some domestic training photos taken by an American, but he purchased commercial French images while overseas. Most likely, some American somewhere took stereo photos while in France. As for the Germans...?

As previously mentioned, the Kaiser-Panorama images are the first WWI German stereos I have ever seen. Not surprisingly, each nation's photos concentrate on their own troops. The French and British were not above staging photos, but they both also captured the true horror of the conflict - dead bodies, shattered forests and blasted villages choked with rubble are common themes. They were not shy about photographing military technology.

The Realistic Travels set was shot primarily, but not entirely, early in the war. The French clicked away for the duration. The Germans, at least in the form of the Fuhrmann images in my possession, were strictly early days photographers, and their results bear the least resemblance to the reality of world war. One suspects a strong propaganda element, or perhaps a Pollyanna mind set among the Germans in general.

The Images

The bulk of WWI stereo slides were produced in 45 x 107 format. Although interestingly, it appears a great many of the original photos were shot with 6 x 13 equipment, then printed to 45 x 107 slides. I have seen a hand full of 6 x 13 slides (Fisherview being an example). The only 8.5 x 17 images I have seen are the Fuhrmann sets. They are also unique for having been hand tinted. Each image was sandwiched with a frosted glass, the back of which was tinted, typically with two colors. Green and a brownish tan were the most common. A terracotta was used on tile roofs, and errata were accomplished with a translucent black. Quality of the tinting varies from somewhat crude to quite effective. On brief inspection, the best work would appear to be true color photos.

What I find particularly fascinating is the unreality of the German perspective. True the pictures are of real soldiers, but almost every one of them looks as though he was mounted on a stick. I can just imagine some German officer running around commanding the troops to turn out for an official "candid" photo. Conspicuous by their absence are weapons, front line troops, and death. True, there a few photos of destroyed buildings (mostly churches) and the odd rifle or two, but it is easy to surmise these images on balance were designed as propaganda. The realities of conflict were strictly verboten.

Each photo was tape bound with a piece of frosted glass. The image was labeled with a one line description and copyright information, then hand tinted with translucent colors. This image shows three colors. What appears to be a blue-gray tint on the soldier's trousers is actually just gray showing through from the black and white slide.

This is as close as we get to reality. Although obviously posed, at least the soldiers are wearing helmets and holding rifles. Notice the Picklelhauben. These date the photos to early in the war. Every trench photo in the set shows a dry and well constructed environment. This contrasts sharply with images of French and British trenches, which were typically knee deep in mud and dead bodies. The word "propaganda" comes to mind. Clever use of tinting makes this look like a true color image.

I love this latrine shot. Its not the only one in the set depicting naked men. It has been said the German general staff was, at this time, rife with notorious homosexuals. Presumably they approved. Allied propriety would never have allowed such shocking content. Mutilated bodies were fine, but nudity...never!

This shot is typical in that it depicts behind the lines activities. Perhaps military security would not allow photography at the front. It also follows form in as much as while there is work being done, we have officers oddly scattered about. In real life, would there really be three officers monitoring the work? Virtually every photograph depicts a mix of officers and men. Often they are all standing there waiting for the photo to be taken.