zondag 8 februari 2009

Hidden Depths : Jacques Henri Lartigue en stéréoscopie Photography

Hidden Depths :
Jacques Henri Lartigue en stéréoscopie

Une interview de Bill Hibbert

Hidden Depths

Galerie Photo: Bill, you're offering a sort of Jacques Henri Lartigue stereoscopic box – an unusual and delightful object... Who are you ? An editor ? A designer ? Where did you get the idea for such
a thing ?

Bill Hibbert : My career was in information technology so really I had no photographic background other than a general amateur interest. However after taking early retirement I began collecting photographs, acquiring a fairly haphazard collection of photographs I liked. As time passed I found the price of collectable photographs escalating beyond all reason (at least that was what I thought at the time – by comparison with current prices they seem positively cheap!), and so I switched to collecting books, almost exclusively photographic monographs.

One of my favourite photographers was Lartigue, and I accumulated perhaps 30 of his monographs. In one of them, Les autochromes de Jacques-Henri Lartigue, in an introductory interview Jacques commented that many of his early photographs had been taken in stereo and how sad he was that because of the reproduction difficulty it was impossible to show them in 3D. This chimed with me because a few months earlier I had bought a few WW I glass stereo slides and a viewer from a flea market in Brussels and been really astounded by the impact of these desolate visions of the fields of Flanders. I think it's very hard for people to understand quite how powerful a stereo transparency can be, particularly when the physical medium – in this case a tired, scratched black and white shard of glass – coincides so exactly with the bleak muddy trenches and burnt trees of the WW I killing fields.

So I resolved that the next time I was in Paris I'd go to the Association des amis de Jacques- Henri Lartigue (as it then was) and see his stereos in their original form. Of course, it was hopeless. The Association was producing its annual accounts ; everybody was feverishly busy ; and nobody had time to show an ignorant Englishman around their archives, a purpose for which they were not set up anyway. However Martine d'Astier, the directrice, kindly took the time to tell me a little about the archives, show me some prints, and arrange a time at which I could come back to talk in more detail. I returned, as I remember, a few weeks later, and was shown some of the slides, still in their original boxes, and given more information about the archives – 100,000 images, several thousand glass stereos (nobody was sure of the exact number!) in a variety of formats, 300,000 items in total.

Everybody loved the stereos, was anxious to see them published, but the technical difficulties and small probable market meant that no editor had expressed any interest in the project. A box of 12 stereos had been printed and issued in tiny quantities by the Association (Le troisième oeil), but was so expensive to produce they'd lost money on every one. As I left I remember saying that I might just possibly be interested in producing a book of the stereos... Note that at this point I knew nothing about stereo, nothing about book design, or production, or publishing or marketing, in fact of anything that might conceivably be useful in such a project. The only viewers I'd ever seen were Viewmasters as a child and the little box viewer I'd bought in Brussels, and the only 3D photographs those that went with them. Anyway, I started thinking about the design of the various components, presented some maquettes to Martine d'Astier to prove that I was at least a little bit serious, and eventually obtained permission to scan all the stereos. This I did over a period of several weeks, scanning some 5,000 glass negatives in a quasiindustrial process.

One of the 100 stereo photographs shown in Hidden Depths: on the front side, just above the image, there's a quotation by Lartigue taken from his journals ; on the back side some information about the photographer's life at the time he took the photo... an excellent work of iconography and very practical in use !

Let's talk about the contents of the box: it contains 100 stereo cards,
a book of 32 pages, and a stereoscope...

In producing Hidden Depths I was anxious that it should be a complete package – beautiful and interesting images, a great viewer, some information about Lartigue and his life, and just a little information about stereo and how it works. The biography and stereo information are in the book, and the images each have some text taken from Lartigue's memoirs, which are now out of print and not easy to find. I have tried to add some background to the story of each image on the reverse of the card, so they can be read like a book or browsed at random, as preferred. The biggest problem by far was the viewer. Originally I tried to design a collapsible viewer similar to a Holmes stereoscope, building a variety of prototypes, but the many constraints – cheap to build in large quantities, small enough to post cheaply, easy to assemble, and producing high quality images – were overwhelming, and I was on the verge of giving up when I had the brainwave of using folded polypropylene for the carcase and then the immense good fortune to find a job lot of excellent lenses on ebay at a reasonable price. Hence the current novel design, which not only meets all the requirements above but is also robust and offers a luminous shadow free image.

Did Jacques Lartigue work a great deal in 3D ?

As I mentioned above there are about 5,000 glass stereo negatives in the Lartigue archives, the vast majority in 6 x 13 format, taken between about 1905 and 1928.

Many of his most famous images were originally taken in stereo, including for example the shots of Bichonnade jumping down the stairs, Gabriel Voisin taking the first flight over French soil, and Jacques' brother Zissou posing as a ghost on the verandah of their house. This is about 5% of all the photographs Lartigue took in his lifetime, but probably nearer 25% of his published photographs, since the early ones are recycled time and time again to the almost complete exclusion of his later work.

It is clear that Lartigue held the stereos in particular affection, and I think the key to this was their ability to transport him back to the original event in a way that a flat print never could.

What criteria did you apply when you were choosing the images ? How did you make the selection ?

From the 5,000 negatives (plus a few positives whose negatives had disappeared) I scanned, I produced a long list of around 800 of the very best images and printed them off. This is a wonderful book to browse and gives a real indication of the high quality of Lartigue's photographs, but even so it could easily have been twice as long.

I have made the comment to several people that Lartigue was arguably the greatest stereo photographer ever. This claim is invariably met with a moue of scepticism, but no-one has so far managed to name another who produced so many stereos of anything like the same quality. I'm still waiting... In fact, Lartigue's work of this period is intrinsically effective in stereo. One views a stereo photograph differently from a plane image – the latter is further removed from the actual experience, so it is inevitably viewed more intellectually, while a good stereo tends to draw you into the frame – it is more immersive, more involving, more emotional, so Lartigue's relaxed, intimate style works very well in the 3D viewer.

In making the final selection, I tried to cover all of his interests – family, friends and lovers, the fashionable ladies, his sports, trips to the seaside and ski resorts, the cars and aeroplanes – and as far as possible the whole period during which he worked in stereo. I also wanted to have some famous images, for comparison with the published versions (which are often very different), and a range of new images that had never been published before. Finally I thought it was important to select images which had good depth and showed well in stereo – it would have been a wasted opportunity to show 'flat' photographs, no matter how beautiful they were.

The booklet of 30 pages : it has an introduction to the oeuvre of
Jacques Henri Lartigue and its place in the history of stereo photography,
as well as a technical introduction to the latter.

It's very nicely finished, and all the boxes are numbered – they could easily be of interest to collectors. Did you have them in mind ?

Thank you ! I anticipated from the beginning that the edition was more for collectors than for the general public, and this has proven to be the case.
Of course it's difficult to sell in a bookshop because it needs good light and quite a lot of shelf space, and also requires me to donate a viewer and some spare cards, which is not always easy to justify financially, so sadly the man in the street whom it might interest is unlikely ever to see it.

I think it's a good buy for collectors. There is a limited quantity and copies are numbered to prove that ; there will not be a reprint so it's now or never ; both the photographer and the technique of stereo are of great historical interest, although in the latter case sadly neglected by modern photographic historians ; and I think it fills quite a substantial gap in the literature.

It's also (I think!) great fun to read, and a real eye-opener for anybody interested in photography who has no experience of stereo.

You are English and your site is in English. But if a galerie-photo reader wants to buy Hidden Depths and goes to the shop on your website, in the 'Commercial' page he's going to find a French telephone number and an address in Narbonne. Are you living in France ?

Yes – we're almost neighbours! I've been installed here for over a year now, although I retain a base in the UK, and am greatly enjoying it. I've spent a great deal of my life living abroad, much of it in francophone countries, so you can imagine that I'm a francophile who adores the climate, culture, language (although I still fail to do it justice) and people of France, but I also find that simply living outside one's natural environment enriches everyday experiences wherever you are.

Of course I really wanted Hidden Depths to be at least bilingual English and French, but sadly I couldn't do the English to French translation myself and couldn't afford to pay a professional (the whole project was self-financed). However, all the original French text is available in a pdf file on my website which is at least a tiny concession to francophone sensibilities.

The stereoscope: a real little marvel of invention! The transparent walls of the self-assembled viewer allow the maximum light to fall on the view card.

You've chosen the publisher's name 'Design for Life' for your site and for the book. The viewer is superb, the presentation of the images is of great intelligence and sobriety. The whole thing is really easy to use and all for an incredibly reasonable price. This is an extremely successful and refined design. The name of the site implies there will be more items of this kind – is this correct ?

Thanks for the kind comments - developing Hidden Depths took a large part of my time over several years, and most of that was spent not on the original design, but on continual refinement. I had endless cardboard (easier to work with than polypropylene !) versions of the viewer, each a tiny bit better than the previous one, and I discovered to my cost that minuscule changes to the typography have a huge subliminal effect on the appearance and readability of text. It is a great pleasure to know that the effort was not wasted.

Curiously I originally chose the name 'Design for Life' for one of my other ventures - a furniture design company ! I ran this part-time for a year or two with a friend of mine, but although everybody loved the furniture, very few people bought it, so to my great regret the business had to be closed ; at least I was left with a very well-furnished house. However I still owned the company, Design for Life Ltd, and as it was such a generally applicable name it seemed sensible to continue to use it for the next project.

I am currently working on several further projects, two of which are associated with stereo photography. I'd rather not say too much about them at the moment, but I do think that when published they will be welcomed by the photographic community at large, and stereographers in particular. Anybody who's bought a copy of Hidden Depths from my site will get an email when anything new is released, and of course I'll keep the site updated with developments so keep watching.

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