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June 2023
1min read

California in Depth
A Stereoscopic History


by Jim Crain, Chronicle Books, 112 pages, $24.95. CODE: CRN-3

Before they gave way to movies, stereo views brought a spectacular three-dimensional world into Americans’ own homes. These nineteenth-century dual-image photographs (dual because a stereo camera used twin lenses set as far apart as two eyes) have been snatched up by collectors for decades. Now this unique book— it comes with its own 3-D viewer—makes an impressive sampling of Old West pictures available to anyone.

Early California, painted so romantically by artists of the time, hovers before you raw and fraught with dangers as recorded by the traveling stereophotographers. An 1865 view shows a typical former gold-rush town, Placerville, California, with a wagon dragging across a rutted Main Street lined with flimsy Western facades. A picture from 1880 brings you face-to-face with a sad-looking old man who’s been posing too long in the sun. “Cassiano Indian,” the caption reads, “136 years old.” A frontier scene of the next year shows two hanged men dangling in three dimensions from a frontier gallows. The transcontinental railroad comes together in a 3-D series—from granite cutters to track layers to locomotives bridging plunging ravines. The 3-D viewer feels at first like someone else’s glasses, but then the pictures spring out at you with their still-astonishing vistas receding persuasively to the horizon.

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