Whilst wandering the streets of Montreal recently, I came across an outdoor photo exhibition displayed along the west side of McGill College, just north of Ste-Catherine. The exhibition, entitled 1 image 2 eyes 3D, has been curated by the McCord Museum, and consists of 12 images of nineteenth-century Quebec.
The images have been selected from the McCord’s Notman Photographic Archives, a collection of photographs that document Canadian history from the 1840s to today. More importantly, the photographs are all stereoscopic, that definitively Victorian mode of three-dimensional imaging. The McCord installation is quite ingenious – it “translates” the nineteenth-century stereograms into twentieth-century anaglyphs, which (given a viewing subject possessed of binocular vision) can then be seen in all their 3D glory through bi-coloured plastic viewers embedded throughout the display. The images selected for the exhibit produce a stunning effect when viewed in 3D – a tree-lined, wooden pathway stretches off into a distant version of McGill University in 1870, the spikes and curls of a wrought-iron balcony hang a precarious remove from the dusty street beneath, and a photograph of horses and dogs readying for a run outside the Montreal Hunt Club resolves into a breathtaking field of enormous visual complexity. (The images used in the display can be seen at the McCord Museum’s index page here.)
One extremely popular use of stereograms in the mid-Victorian period, particularly in North America, was as what Yoko Kanemitsu has called “armchair tours of foreign cities and landscapes” – travel literature that brought the world’s most incredible sights right into the home, as it were. The distinctly immersive experience of looking through a viewer and feeling the pull of a three-dimensional scene offered (and continues to offer) something far more visceral than did the experience of looking at a mere photograph. The McCord display works as a similar kind of travel documentary, although in a temporal, rather than geographical, way. Nineteenth- and twenty-first-century Montreal become momentarily juxtaposed here, and to be able to “see” the approach to the Arts building of McGill as it looked in the 1870s, and then take two steps sideways to see the same view as it looks today, is an inspired arrangement.
I found myself thinking about Eddy’s post on heritage tourism as I worked my way through the exhibit, and wondered how this installation, placed as it is for all to enjoy in the middle of a sidewalk in downtown Montreal, might be understood as something like Nayar’s “heritage zone.” On the one hand, the display works as an elaborate advertisement for the McCord museum itself, situated a short walk away, and for the major corporate sponsors of the display, whose logos emblazon the exhibit. These twelve images, selected from a massive collection, articulate a particular version of nineteenth-century Montreal that undoubtedly takes into consideration the summer tourist trade in the city. On the other hand, the stereograms on display were themselves commercial enterprises, commodified representations of places and spaces that were designed to promote Montreal, Quebec, and Canada, and, especially, to promote the studios that produced the images. By what arithmetic might we calculate the impact or import of a re-commodification of a commodification of a place and time in a newer time and place? The analogy doesn’t work all that well, I’ll admit – there’s a fair difference between the histori-theme-park-ification of Kelmscott Manor and the public display of twelve stereograms in Montreal. Still, the attempt to “mobilize” heritage, as Eddy puts it, is discernible in every organized assembly of the past in the present. The technological angle of the McCord installation ultimately feels like an effort to make history cool, accessible and relevant (and, therefore, marketable?), and to restore or make visible the traces of the past to the very street that has been built over them.
The display runs from June 24th to October 18th, 2009, and is worth a visit if you’re in Montreal this summer. By way of parting, let’s try a leap from the 3D images of nineteenth-century Montreal to the 4D cinema show at Dickens World – any takers?
Kanemitsu, Yoko. “Stereoscopy and Pre-Raphaelitism: The Pre-Raphaelites and Ruskin in the New Media Age.” Convergence 6.1 (2000): 106-120.