Back in 1948, David Morison set out with a buddy to climb Pyramid Peak, a fourteener in the heart of the Elk Range, west of Aspen. His friend brought along a funny-looking camera with two lenses, spaced about as far apart as the eyes in your head.
The climb was a success. So were the pictures. When the transparencies were mounted in tandem, projected on a silver screen and viewed through special polarized glasses, the dual images merged into a single, seemingly three-dimensional shot. The rugged vistas, dizzying heights and distances -- all the terror and beauty of the climb -- came into sharp relief in a way no ordinary photograph could match.
Morison was astounded. "When I saw the slides, I knew I had to get a camera like that," he recalls. "I'd never seen anything like it."
Now 81, Morison is still hiking and taking pictures. He was the first man to bicycle up Mount Elbert, and many of his slides have won top awards in international competitions and elicited gasps when shown in mountaineering shops. For the past fifty years, he's also been a member in good standing of the Rocky Mountain Stereo Club, a Denver-based group of hard-core hobbyists devoted to the art of stereo photography. But now that he lives on the Western Slope, Morison no longer makes it to the RMSC's monthly meetings.
Few people do. When the group gathers at the Denver Botanic Gardens on the first Tuesday of every month, attendance can usually be counted on two hands -- with plenty of fingers to spare.
"The club's gotten pretty small as the group has aged and started dying off," acknowledges president Dan Wray. "I'm no spring chicken myself; I'm pushing sixty. But this is the oldest club I belong to. Some of the others are octogenarians, and we don't seem to be attracting a lot of new people."
Once one of the most vigorous organizations of its kind in the country, the club is down to fewer than two dozen dues-paying members and only five or six regulars who manage to show up for meetings. Its decline reflects the slow slide into obscurity of stereo photography itself, which adherents consider to be a superior alternative to "flat" picture-taking.
Efforts to add depth and perspective to photographs are practically as old as the medium itself. The first dual-lens stereo camera was built in 1849, and eminent Victorians amused themselves with handheld stereoscopes that, like the mighty View-Master a century later, allowed them to view exotic travel scenes in simulated 3-D. But it wasn't until after World War II that inexpensive stereo cameras using 35-millimeter color film became widely available, triggering a 1950s boom in stereo photography that coincided with the craze for 3-D movies, such as House of Wax.
A key figure in the boom was Seton Rochwhite, an engineer who invented the Stereo Realist camera in 1943; by the mid-1950s, there were more than forty brands of stereo cameras on the market, all aping his format. Rochwhite, who died in Loveland in 2000 at the age of 96, was an early member of the Rocky Mountain Stereo Club.
According to club records in a special collection at the Denver Public Library, the RMSC was established at a meeting of 25 enthusiasts on January 28, 1953. Membership was declared open to "any person of good character and interested in stereo photography." In addition to Rochwhite, several noted Denverites joined in the slide shows, picnics and annual banquets ($3.50 per plate at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in 1958), including Morison, camera-shop owner Chuck Major, perennial club officer and booster Glen Thrush, and juvenile-court judge Phillip Gilliam.
When the Photographic Society of America held its national convention in Denver in 1956, the RMSC made a splash with a stunning 3-D audio-visual presentation, Colorado Stereoland, which touted the majestic Rockies and the scenic sites of the Mile High City. The group enthusiastically competed in regional, national and even international photography contests, occasionally edging out an equally prize-hungry club in Sydney, Australia.
More than a fad, stereo photography has been used to scale the heavens and plumb the depths of human experience. NASA has used stereo cameras in space exploration, and cartographers value the detail the equipment brings to aerial photography. Rochwhite once designed a special apparatus for a local dentist who wanted to take stereo pictures of patients' teeth. An avid caver, the RMSC's current president got into stereo after discovering the indisputable vividness and depth of stereo cave photography.
"Once you start doing that, you don't want to go back," Wray says. "When we have our national cavers' convention, there's always a stereo element to the presentations."
Although most of the remaining members are interested in other forms of photography as well, "I find it's a lot like video -- it's very difficult to switch formats," Wray says. "Stereo doesn't lend itself to wide views. You really need something in the foreground before it becomes a decent stereo shot. The best stereo shots give you several layers of depth. Everything has to be in focus, and it's nice to frame things with trees or something else. It's really a different way of thinking."
Yet as popular interest in the field waned, so did the availability of equipment. Companies stopped making the cameras -- "There are some handmade ones, but you don't want to know the cost," Wray observes -- as well as the projectors; these days, newcomers scour eBay for Fifties-era equipment. Film processors no longer offer to mount the slides, leaving hobbyists to do their own mounting. The hurdles have discouraged all but the most dedicated. In an age of point-and-click disposables and digital cameras that offer instant gratification, who wants to mess around with transparencies, projectors, screens and those goofy 3-D glasses?
"Stereo is a time-consuming hobby," notes RMSC secretary Ray Kluever. "Digital's the new kid on the block."
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Kluever has been involved in the club for a decade and used to write its newsletter. But as membership has dropped, so has the news; the group's moribund website hasn't been updated in two years. "Right now I'm basically sending postcards to people," Kluever says, "letting them know when the next meeting is."
Some fans believe that new technology will be the savior of stereo photography. Three-dimensional effects have enjoyed a sporadic resurgence in movies and gaming systems (IMAX, Spy Kids 3-D), and several companies are promoting equipment that allows the user to take stereo shots with digital cameras, usually by mounting the camera on a slide bar and capturing images from a perspective a few inches apart. But to see the results on a computer screen requires the viewer to cross his eyes, put on special glasses -- or invest in a $3,300 laptop with a multi-layered LCD display.
For the most part, the core believers of the Rocky Mountain Stereo Club prefer the older, more familiar technology. Their cameras may be half a century old, they say, but they still work pretty well.
"There's a group of us who just keep going with the whole thing," says Kluever, "to see what we can come up with."