Keppler’s Vault 17: View-Master Stereo Camera

View-Master viewers like these were a staple of my childhood growing up in the 1980s.

Growing up in the 1980s, the View-Master stereo viewer with it’s iconic red plastic shell and round paper discs were a common sight for me and pretty much everyone I knew.  Pre-loaded discs with 3D images were available of everything from far away cities to scenes from Star Wars movies.  Local toy stores sold View-Master products with an unimaginable number of options to suit every kid’s 3D viewing desires.

As I grew up, I fondly remembered the View-Master as a relic of my childhood, never realizing that at one point in time, it was a viable photographic medium that you could create yourself!  WHAT?!  I could have been making my own View-Master discs all this time?! Introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, the View-Master stereo camera was created by a man named Edwin Eugene Mayer while working for a company called Sawyer’s.  The View-Master was not merely a toy for displaying images in glorious stereoscopic color, but a whole photographic system including a camera, splicer, viewer, and projector.
This is an early example of a stereoscopic viewer in which the user would look at a printed card of two nearly identical images captured with a stereo camera.
Stereoscopic photography was not new in 1939, and in fact was very popular as far back as the late 1800s where people would take two nearly identical photographs of the same subject using a dual lens stereo camera in which the lenses were roughly the same distance apart as the eyes on a human face.  By capturing the same image twice at slightly different angles, a 3D effect could be achieved by looking at the two images using a stereoscopic viewer such as the one to the left.  Of course, these early stereo viewers could only display a single image at the time, but the concept was very popular. I won’t pretend to know the whole history of stereoscopic viewers, but upon the View-Master’s release and its round discs containing 14 small images making up 7 stereoscopic images, the concept of seeing more than one image without having to change a slide was probably very exciting.  At first, consumers couldn’t make their own View-Master discs, as the only option was commercially available discs produced by the Sawyer’s company, but that would soon change. In this week’s Keppler’s Vault, we take a look at an article from the August 1955 issue of Modern Photography where Norman Rothschild looked at the whole View-Master system which allowed anyone to create their own homemade View-Master discs. Amazingly, the View-Master camera worked with standard 35mm film and would expose small 12mm x 14mm images on the 35mm film which you could either mail back to Sawyer’s to get mounted, or use the available cutter to cut out the tiny exposures yourself.  A standard 20-exposure roll of film was good for 37 stereo pairs, and a 36-exposure roll created a whopping 69 stereo pairs, good enough for nearly 10 discs!
The View-Master camera would shoot its images on the bottom half of the film and then the top half after reaching the end of the film.
A really neat feature of the View-Master camera is that when starting off with a fresh roll of film, the camera only exposes the bottom half of the roll of film.  Once you get to the end of the roll, you turn a “Shift Knob” located in between the two lenses, and the lenses move into position to capture images on the top half of the roll.  As you continue to take more images, the film travels backwards into the film cassette, meaning that once you’ve reached the end of the roll, there is no need to rewind your film as it’s already at the beginning of the roll again!
The Stereo-Matic 500 projector would project View-Master slides on a special screen that when viewed with polarized glasses would appear to be in 3D!
At the time, there were several options for viewing your discs.  There were a variety of handheld viewers, some requiring an external light source and some with a built in one, a simple 2D projector that would project the dual images on a regular projection screen, and a really neat Stereoscopic 3D projector that when used with a special aluminized screen and polarized glasses, would allow anyone in the room to see the images in glorious 3D!  Take THAT James Cameron’s Avatar! The View-Master system was quite robust with several filters, closeup attachments (with parallax correction prisms), and even flash attachments.  There were certainly other options available at the time, many of which took larger stereo images on regular 35mm film and even some medium format stereo cameras, but none were as complete of a package aimed at the amateur than the View-Master system. I’ll admit to never really having much interest in stereo cameras, but it is clear that the View-Master Personal Camera was not just another stereo camera.  These things don’t show up for sale often, but after reading the article below, it’s going to take a bit of will power to not immediately go on eBay looking for one!

All scans used with permission by Marc Bergman, 2018.

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