This may be the year that the third-dimension finally takes hold. The earnings for Avatar exceed $1.8 billion, and 3-D TVs were all the rage at CES this year. Earlier this month ESPN announced plans for a 3-D channel to debut with the first World Cup match (Mexico versus South Africa) on June 11. Also this month Discovery, IMAX and Sony are collaborating on a 24-hour 3-D network, and Hewlett-Packard and Stratasys disclosed plans for a 3-D printer.
On the heels of this month's 3-D hoopla, Brian May, guitarist and songwriter for Queen, is releasing a book that contains some of the earliest stereoscopy, which is the original term for 3-D. Village Lost and Found, published in the U.S. next month by Frances Lincoln, contains 59 photos of small town life with an accompanying focusing stereoscopic viewer designed by May.
As the lead guitar for Queen, May was the picture of rock bluster, banging out the gilt-edges chords of "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "Radio Ga Ga" with his drape of dark curls flying. Offstage he more closely resembled a power nerd. He began studying for his PhD in astrophysics—his specialty was interplanetary dust—before Queen blew up in the 1970s. When the band dispersed 20 years later he completed his doctoral studies and co-authored Bang! a bestselling history of the universe, with Christ Lintott and astronomer Sir Patrick Moore.
As a child May noticed that he could conjure a stereoscopic effect by staring at the wallpaper pattern in his parents' home in suburban London. "I used to be fascinated by this effect," he said, "of what it did to your perception." As an adult he collected vintage stereoscopic postcards at auctions and antique shops, sometimes inviting dealers to Queen concerts so he could review their offerings backstage.
All 3-D images reflect the way in which our eyes perceive scenes from two slightly different angles. According to May, 19th-century stereoscopic photography simulates depth more convincingly than contemporary methods. "It's matchless," he said. "You really feel like you're there and you can walk into the scene."
May's collection centered on the work of T.R. Williams, a pioneer of stereoscopic photography who became famous in the 1850s for "Scenes in Our Village," a series of hand-colored stereoscopic cards depicting thatched cottages, pigsties and farmers pushing crude wheelbarrows. England was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, and these pastoral scenes became enormously popular as sentimental tokens of a disappearing life.
It was not known what village Williams had photographed, or if it was a mix of villages, until May began researching the photos with Elena Vidal, an art curator. They spent years trying to match the photos to real locations in southern England. They had no success until May posted Williams' photo of a village church online and offered a box set of Queen CDs to anyone who could identify it. Within days May had his answer: St. Margaret of Antioch Church in Hinton Waldrist in Oxfordshire. He drove there immediately. "It was an extraordinary spine-chilling moment when I finally saw the church that I had been studying remotely for half of my life," he wrote in a blog about the collection. "It was almost unchanged, almost suspended in time. I tried to find the same position from which Williams had first photographed it, which just so happened to involve standing on the roof of my car. I took a snap from there."
Do these Victorian images stand a chance of catching the public imagination? "Two flat pictures, but when you look at them in the right way you are in that place," May told the London Telegraph. "You can walk inside."