There are various methods for viewing stereoscopic picture pairs, but by far the most popular one is the use of anaglyphs. Everyone knows the famous 3D-glasses with their typical red and green filters which almost became synonymous with the idea of stereoscopy itself.

Compared to the general fame of anaglyphs, oddly enough many enthusiasts and connoisseurs of three-dimensional pictures have a low opinion of this method. They seem to ignore the fact that just this technique made it possible to show stereo slides and — later on — also stereo movies not only to one single person but to a large audience at the same time.

Wilhelm Rollmann has made the invention. His very first instruction for binocular viewing of normally arranged stereo pictures — by stretching the eyes with the fingertips1 — sounds awkward today but seemed easy to him.2 In 1853 he published the innovation of stereoscopic semi-pictures that are complementarily colored and homologously superposed.3 With the help of equivalently colored glasses they are separated by viewing, because — on a bright surface — the counter-colored picture gets a dark appearance while the same-colored picture disappears by absorption. A few years later (1858) Charles d’Almeida4 described a similar procedure based on the opposite principle where the same-colored picture is bright on a dark surface and the counter-colored becomes invisible.5 This way of handling was not just suitable for projections, but it intentionally has been invented for this purpose. Since 1891 Rollmann’s technique turns out to be a great success when Louis Ducos du Hauron — by mistake referring to d’Almeida — adapted it for the means of book printing and it was him calling it: Anaglyphs.6

As colors on this occasion operate like a physical sieve this method only permits black and white renderings.7 That is the main reason for today’s disdain of the anaglyphs which do not satisfy the demands of contemporary techniques of projection and reproduction. Apart from the charm of nostalgia, that still radiates from some red/green-movies, the method with polarised lightbeams nowadays obviously will always be preferred to cause adequate stereo-projection. However, there is no reason why anaglyphs also passed out of use concerning print media. After all — on condition of sufficient stereo-suitability — even laymen8 immediately are able to carry out the effect of plasticity of anaglyphic pictures without any fussy handling with lenses and prisms, which is sometimes followed by lasting frustrations. The above-mentioned popularity of the 3D-glasses still corresponds to a general acceptance. Due to this via anaglyphs stereoscopy could reach a broad audience, and regarding to economic considerations the technique of complementary colors would be the most useful one anyway.

Nevertheless, the discussion about the pros and cons9 of anaglyphs gets unimportant the moment Rollmann’s invention is measured not only by technical but by aesthetic criteria. Even seen without glasses an anaglyphic picture occasionally looks marvellous and in addition it contains some qualities of a unique art form.10 Considering the sensation of Charles Wheatstone’s discovery11 that has been the birth of a new and historic outstanding type of picture, the omitted reception of stereoscopy in context of art theory remains a really inconceivable desideratum. Being an artistic medium, the stereoscopic image — neither in general nor in anaglyphic manner — so far hardly has been a subject of serious research. But such an examination just of formal-aesthetic points of view would be exceedingly rewarding and interesting, e. g. concerning structural affinities of parallax panoramagrams — no less also of anaglyphic pictures — with the stylistic features of Futurism.

Finally, in the field of stereoscopic anamorphosis the anaglyphs kept a domain with no feasible alternatives except vectographs which noticeably are as complicated as expensive. The astonishing plasticity of the fused sense impression here is brought about by the perspectively distorted geometry of the representation that erects in face of the spectator viewing it from a diagonal angle. Fading out its material substance the two-dimensional figure changes into a three-dimensional figuration causing a fleeting and paradoxical perception by the coincidence of imaginary and real space.12 Last not least that phenomenon makes the anamorphotic variant of stereoscopy also to be a singularity of art: a cross between — and beyond — painting and sculpture.13 Like a hybrid apparition of a concrete phantom the product of anamorphotic anaglyphs is both novelty and curiosity of visual aesthetics; within stereoscopic anamorphosis, form and function of anaglyphs come to a striking connection which does not only justify this technique to be an artistic discipline, it just also confers the true sense on its name.

© 1993 Achim Bahr, Anaglyphen. — First published in 3D-Magazin 4, Haltern 1993; this version in Stereoscopy 2/36, International Stereoscopic Union 1998; revised by the author, translated by Ulrike Frohn 1998

  1. Wilhelm Rollmann: Notiz zur Stereoskopie, J.C. Poggendorffs Annalen der Physik (und Chemie), Halle/Leipzig 1853, 89, 350pp ↩︎
  2. Moritz von Rohr: Die binokularen Instrumente, Berlin 1920, 101 ↩︎
  3. Wilhelm Rollmann: Zwei neue stereoskopische Methoden, Pogg. Ann. 1853, 90, 186pp ↩︎
  4. Charles d’Almeida: Ein neuer Stereoskopapparat, in: Moritz von Rohr (ed.), Abhandlungen zur Geschichte des Stereoskops, Leipzig 1908, 103pp ↩︎
  5. Otto Vierling pointed out the difference between subtractive and additive use of complementary colors at Rollmann´s resp. d’Almeida´s: Die Stereoskopie in der Photographie und Kinematographie, Stuttgart 1965, 209pp ↩︎
  6. This word formation borrowed from Greek consisting of the prefix ana and the verb glyphein roughly means embossed. ↩︎
  7. In principle colored anaglyphs can be realized and have been tested, but so far they actually never have been free from residual images; c.f. i.a Otto Vierling, loc. cit., 142pp, as well as Wolfgang Dultz / Susanne Klein: Raumbildtechniken fuer den Bildschirm, in: Gerhard Kemner (ed.), Stereoskopie, cat. Museum für Verkehr und Technik, Berlin 1989, 89pp ↩︎
  8. and — contrary to a common opinion — actually color-blind persons, too ↩︎
  9. Cf. Otto Vierling, loc. cit., 140pp ↩︎
  10. A telling example for this is the work by László P. Futó, who defines his anaglyphic painting as an individual style of art; he wants his pictures and painted reliefs to be complete objects of art even and especially seen with bare eyes. László P. Futó: Anaglyph Painting — A Method of Stereoscopic Formation, Zürich 1991, 19; a review of the book by Alexander Klein in: 3D-Magazin 2/1993, 40 ↩︎
  11. Charles Wheatstone: Beitraege zur Physiologie der Gesichtswahrnehmung, in: Moritz von Rohr, see note 5, 3pp ↩︎
  12. Cf. Achim Bahr: Aspects of Stereoscopy, cat. vision Raum, Neckarwerke, Fellbach 1991 (no pag.) ↩︎
  13. Another essential range of problems is arising here, which never ever has been thought about in this context, briefly expressed with the term of Paragone, i.e. the historical competition for predominance of arts. ↩︎