Rediscovering 19th century photography in Aberdeen
by Sofia Ferrara
Time travel – a vivid dream that clings to your eyes a while after you’ve opened them. It felt like I could touch the harbour, the carriages, the lady’s pink umbrella and the thick mustache of a grumpy-looking man staring at me from a distant past. They were but lines printed on paper and projected on a big university Hall – yet they looked alive and real. George Washington Wilson’s 19th century photographs thrilled me like a live show as I held onto my stereoscopic glasses, my eyes open wide and eager for more.
World-leading expert on the Aberdeenshire-born photographer, Dr Roger Taylor, visited the University of Aberdeen and the George Washington Wilson Centre for Visual Culture to launch a new and improved edition of his book “George Washington Wilson, artist and photographer”. Originally Dr Taylor’s master dissertation, the book was first published in 1981 by the Aberdeen Press. The first edition of the book, however, left its author a little disappointed. The publishing industry was undergoing a financial crisis and photographs were considered mere illustrations to accompany the text, and not a crucial part of the text itself. So even though the text beautifully told GWW’s story, the poor quality of printing and the publisher’s poor judgement did not do justice to his photography: his attention to colours had been erased by black and white printing and the magic of stereo photographs had been butchered by printing them as mono.
Almost 30 years later, versatile Dr Brian May, photographer, astrophysicist and best known as the lead guitarist of “Queen”, decided to recreate the London Stereoscopic Company. The LSC was originally founded in 1854 with the aim to print stereoscopic cards and photographs, highly popular in the Victorian age. Stereoscopic photography works on the notion that, as we have two eyes, our brain receives two different visual inputs, which is what allows us to perceive spatial depth. Consequently, two almost identical images were placed on a tool called stereoscope, that allowed the eyes to see the two different images simultaneously but separately, sending to the brain two different visual stimuli, which recreated the illusion of depth. Yet time has been merciless to this fascinating type of photography, and the last two centuries have not been so appreciative. Luckily, before Dr May became the rock star we know today, he was a child collecting 3D images that he would find in his morning cereals. He did not lose his passion with age, and in 2008 he re-founded the LSC. In the last ten years, from a site aimed at providing resources and information on stereoscopic photography, the LSC has become the only publishing company dedicated exclusively to publishing stereoscopic work.
From the collaboration between this two passionate men, the new edition of “George Washington Wilson, artist and photographer” has come to life. The book retraces the artist’s life, from his childhood in Aberdeenshire to his travels around the world. Born the second of eleven children in February 1823, by the time of his death in 1893 he was the owner of the largest photography studio in Scotland and one of the largest in the world. Trained as a miniaturist, the arrival of photography encouraged him to change his painting studio into a photographic one. He found success working for the Queen and taking pictures of the Royal Family whenever they were visiting at Balmoral Castle. Although a talented portrait photographer, he is known nowadays for his landscape photography and his stereoscopic pictures. From Dr Taylor’s book it is clear that Wilson was very much the product of his experiences, starting from his childhood in the Aberdeenshire, a place that profoundly shaped the artist’s sensibility and his eye.
It is a beautifully written and highly captivating book, that skillfully balances history, narration and photography. At the back of the book the publisher has included the LITE OWL, a stereoscopic device, designed by May himself, that allows the reader to enjoy GWW’s stereoscopic photography as it would have appeared in the 19th century. It is surreal seeing these old images come out of the page, making the subjects really come to life. I am used to considering old photography as one would consider cave engravings: a first, little, cumbersome step towards the development of an art. But George Washington Wilson has proved me incredibly wrong. His photography is not only not cumbersome at all, but innovative, pioneering and I dare say very relevant in today’s artistic scene. The book can be found in the Special Collection Centre of the Library and I highly recommend taking a peak at it.