Yukon History to be revealed in 3 D

A new historical exhibit is about to open at the Hougen Heritage Gallery in the Arts Underground, and it presents Yukon history from a new perspective.

A new historical exhibit is about to open at the Hougen Heritage Gallery in the Arts Underground, and it presents Yukon history from a new perspective. In the exhibit, titled YT in 3D: Stereo Photos in Yukon, the photos will have the added dimension of depth that will make them appear to reach out to you from the gallery walls.

The principles of the stereographic imagery precede the advent of the camera, but really took on new life as photographic technology advanced during the 18th century. The trick is to take advantage of how our two eyes process slightly different views of the world, producing a three-dimensional image.

To do so, special cameras with two lenses positioned side by side capture slightly different views of the same subject on film. When seen through a special viewing device, this allows the two pictures to be processed into a three dimensional image in the viewer’s brain. When I was young, the same principle applied to the Viewmaster through which I could see images of faraway places, including the fabled Disneyland.

In recent times, these 3-D viewers have declined in popularity but are still marketed to children. At the turn of the 20th century, the stereo viewer or stereopticon was a popular feature in Victorian parlours. It is estimated that as many as a million commercial images were rendered on stereo cards for public consumption.

When conducting research on the Commissioner’s Residence in Dawson City, for example, I found a photo of the drawing room in which a stereopticon featured prominently. A quick scan of my library yielded articles about stereo views taken in the Aleutian Islands in the 1860s using the tedious wet-plate process, and another set documenting the visit of U.S. president Warren Harding to Alaska in 1922, but I found no images featuring Yukon images.

According to David Schlosser, digital archivist at the Yukon Archives and mastermind behind this new exhibit, there are approximately 300 of these images among the more than 100,000 images in the territorial collection. Included among this small segment of the collection are stereo cards of standard views of the Klondike Gold Rush, gathered together by Robert Coutts. Another collection, assembled by Helen Horback, contained stereo negatives taken during the 1920s, through the 1940s. A third collection, from the Jacquot family, contains a selection of glass slides of hunting and winter images taken in the Kluane region.

Commercial photographers were sent out on assignment to document places and events like the Klondike Gold Rush using stereo photography. I even have a couple of these commercial views in my own collection. In their time, these stereo views were tremendously popular and transported viewers to exotic places that they would never see in person. It takes some imagination and creative skill to select images with the right composition and perspective lines to create a strong sense of depth and form.

Schlosser went through the small selection from the Yukon Archives holdings looking for those with Yukon content, diversity of viewpoint and strong sense of depth. Many were rejected because they simply did not seem to jump off the plane of the image, while others gave a strong sense that you could reach out and touch them. A rare view of the steamer Columbian, a Yukon sternwheel river boat, though historically interesting, was rejected because the sense of depth in the image simply wasn’t there. As Schlosser pointed out, that doesn’t take away from its historic importance. Many of these images will be examined by researchers because of their historical content rather than the 3-D effect they create.

I had the opportunity of a sneak preview recently. One panel showed a glass plate stereographic view taken by Louis Jacquot of the hunting guide Field Johnson and a hunter with a Dall sheep, high up on a mountain side near the Donjek River, circa 1920. Another image depicts doctors, patients and nuns inside a ward of St. Mary’s Hospital, Dawson City, over 100 years ago. Yet another presents fox pens at Carcross; a fourth shows miners working their claim on a creek near Dawson City.

A view of a bird’s nest was so compelling that it literally leaped out from the photo and made me want to reach out and touch it. Another showed a dog team pulling a small wagon down the dirt-surfaced Front Street in Dawson City in 1898.

These photographs come alive through the magic of modern digital photography. Anaglyphs are two views, one scanned in red, the other in magenta, that are superimposed upon a single frame. When viewing these images through coloured filters mounted in special cardboard glasses, the viewer’s brain reassembles the images into a three dimensional image.

I believe that viewers will have a real treat viewing our already fascinating history through this unconventional medium. The photographs will be displayed both as anaglyphs, and as the original paired images.

YT in 3D, which was funded by the Friends of the Yukon Archives Society, will be launched with an opening reception at the Arts Underground at 302 Main Street on Friday, Nov. 1st, from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. It will remain on display until the last Saturday in January, so there will be excellent opportunity to see this display during the Christmas holidays. Special 3-D glasses will be provided for viewing the anaglyphs in the exhibit.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net