Stereo Realism as Ideology: The Underwood Boxed Set [EN]

Rod Bantjes

 

The idea that stereoscopy can be a mimetic invocation of the real, an immediate re-presentation of visual
truth, is ideological. In this paper I am interested in the ways in which the myth of stereoscopic realism has
been enlisted in ideological constructions of social and political “realities.” I use the 1914 Underwood &
Underwood boxed set of 100 views of the United States as an exemplar of a new American paradigm of mass-
produced, mass-marketed “world narratives.” The images conform to a standardized, anonymous aesthetic by
which a particular vision claims universality and cold objectivity. The text on each card offers a tightly
controlled ideological gloss on each depicted scene. The bound set, with its impressive tally of 100 views
claims a completeness for a story that is remarkable for its suppressions and silences.
Text and image offer a triumphal celebration of modernization – industrial homogenization, labour
rationalization, large-scale industrial organization and monopoly ownership, and the systematic machine-
exploitation of nature. Meaning is reduced to utility, represented in numbers and dollar figures: a bridge
worth “$10,000,000,” a dis-assembly line of pig carcasses extending for “1⁄4 mile.” There is no hint of the
abuses of monopoly power, oppressive labour conditions or the popular counter-movements of the time –
Progressivism and the labour movement. The treatment of nature is remarkable for its contrast with European
stereoscopy where nature is “pastoralized” and the industrialization of agriculture is framed out of view or
where the machine intrudes, as it does in many tissue views, as a dark, menacing presence. The Underwoods
celebrate machine domination, and when they depict wilderness, it is not with the humility of vision of
contemporaries like John Muir or other members of the conservation movement, but always through the motif
of the conquering gaze. Realism in the American genre of the boxed set is deployed, as realism often is, in a
project of making reality according to a particular set of values and for the benefit of particular power
interests in society.

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