If you spend much time around old photographs, you’ve probably run into sets of “twin” tintypes that look identical at first glance. Unlike photographic prints made from negatives, however, every tintype is technically unique. “Twin” tintypes are thus never exact duplicates of one another; instead, they were taken simultaneously from slightly different perspectives with a multiple-lens camera, the goal being to produce multiple portraits at once in the interests of efficiency.
Sometimes uncut pairs of tintypes turn up. These command a premium among collectors as a novel rarity, and occasionally someone will speculate that the idea may have been to use the side-by-side images as a stereoview. They certainly invite such use, whether or not that’s what was originally intended in any given case.
But so do pairs of tintypes that have been cut apart, and those are much more common; practically speaking, the only difference is that it’s necessary to rotate the two images back into alignment with each other. With that in mind, I’ve assembled some representative examples of “twin” tintypes to illustrate what happens if we try to combine them into what we might call “unintentional stereoviews,” using the technique of the tweened animated GIF which I describe here. There’s nothing new about the concept of unintentional or accidental stereo, of course. Two other examples are the 3D effect achieved by combining pairs of motion picture films shot side by side for foreign and domestic markets by Georges Méliès in 1903 and the attempt by John Levin and Dan Reed to produce stereophonic sound by combining the audio from two phonograph cylinders recorded simultaneously through two different horns in 1891, back when this was a common strategy for making multiple records from a single performance (click here and scroll down to find and listen to the presentation they gave at the 2011 ARSC conference). But “twin” tintypes are surely among the most common sources available for unintentional stereo from a century or more ago—so common, in fact, as to have some potential to democratize the field.
Here’s one pair of tintypes I bought separately on eBay; I’d purchased one of them (the stylistically interesting backdrop had caught my eye) before the other came up for sale through “Buy It Now,” and I immediately snapped up the second one as well with stereoscopic experimentation in mind. The only real difference I saw between these images when I first had them in hand to compare side by side was that each shows a different edge of the painted backdrop, with part of another painted backdrop peeking through from behind it. That provided a clue about which image came from the left side of the camera and which from the right (bearing in mind that tintypes are mirror images), but any stereoscopic differences in perspective seemed pretty subtle: except for cropping, the two images looked identical at first glance, and again at second glance. Even so, I knew there had to be at least some difference in angle.
This second pair of tintypes turned up together as a single lot on eBay and seemed to have some real stereoscopic potential, judging from the noticeable difference in the parts of the painted backdrop visible through the holes in the decorative foreground prop. However, the tintype containing the “left” image was significantly bent, and I was afraid that the warping of the surface might compromise the 3D effect.
This final example illustrates one of the risks I’ve faced in this line of experimentation. These two tintypes were offered separately on eBay. I placed competitive bids on both before leaving for a weekend trip and came within a hair’s breadth of being outbid on one of them. Of course, if I’d been outbid on one of them, the other would have been useless for stereoscopic purposes. But fortunately for me—and fortunately for you as an interested reader—I managed to keep the pair together. As in my first example, when I finally had these tintypes in hand to examine side by side, I didn’t initially spot any differences that seemed likely to yield a stereoscopic perspective, but I knew that the two images had to be at least slightly different.
And now for the results:
The first pair of “twins” yielded a wonderfully compelling stereoscopic effect, the only flaw being the flickery variation in brightness. I’m particularly struck by how the painted backdrop can be seen gently rocking back and forth, giving us a real sense of its physicality as a backdrop. However, the three subjects in the foreground are also thrown into excellent three-dimensional relief, and overall I consider this to be one of my most successful stereoscopic animated GIFs—far better than many I’ve produced from images that were intended to function as stereoviews. Conclusion: tintypes that look identical at first glance may nevertheless work quite well as stereoviews.
Even if the creases in one of the source tintypes have probably distorted the 3D effect of my second example to some degree, I was pleasantly surprised by how well it came out. The plants in the foreground are particularly striking—both the one on the left, which looks downright holographic, and the one on the right where a stray branch moves relative to the faux gate behind it. The woman also appears convincingly three-dimensional, especially if you focus on her back and arm. Conclusion: bent tintypes can still work as stereoviews.
My final example turns out not to be a stereoview at all—or at least not unless you rotate your head ninety degrees. The two images in this case were taken through a pair of lenses mounted one above the other rather than side by side. But that pairing still produces an interesting animated GIF in which the subjects appear to be tilting slowly backwards and forwards, as though they’re aboard a ship rocking gently on the waves. If the effect doesn’t strike you at first, pay attention to the seated man’s hands and you might start to feel slightly seasick. This last case nicely illustrates the way in which animation can reveal the perspectival relationship between two “twin” images in an immediate and vivid manner.
It also shows that animated GIFs aren’t merely a second-best substitute for “real” stereoscopic viewing, and that in some cases they enable us to achieve an illusion of depth that stereoscopy proper wouldn’t permit. By the same token, there’s no reason we should be limited to juxtaposing pairs of images for presentation to corresponding pairs of eyes. Many tintype cameras were designed to produce four (or more) images at once, as was the case with this camera held by the National Museum of American History:
The Minnesota Historical Society has kindly posted a low-resolution image online of one uncut set of four tintype portraits presumably taken with a camera of this sort. Here’s what happens if we combine the portraits from their scan into a tweened animated GIF in the sequence upper left, lower left, lower right, upper right, and repeat:
The resolution is abysmal, the motion is jerky, and one of the four images is distractingly damaged—but as a proof of concept I find this rather promising. I’m eager to obtain some other sets of four or more “twin” tintypes, whether cut apart or not, to see if I can improve on this result.