The resurgence of the GIF is a throwback to the early Internet of the 90s. But is the GIF itself an evolved version of a 19th century form?
The New York Public Library thinks so. With the Stereogranimator, the NYPL is letting users transform 19th century stereographs into GIFs, which lets people experience these historical images the way someone in the 1800s might have. Drawing on a collection of over 40,000 stereographs, the Stereogranimator is a project of the NYPL Labs, an experimental unit at the library using digital means to develop new tools for research.
"If you look through enough of them, you start to notice that many from before 1900 come in seemingly-identical pairs. What you may not realize is that these pairs were meant to be viewed together, each side lending the other a sense of depth that a photograph alone cannot possess," Joshua Heineman, who began a version of the Stereogranimator as a personal project on his blog, wrote on the Huffington Post. "Using stereoscopes, the entertainment-seeking public of the 19th century immersed themselves in these 3D photographs (called stereographs) in a manner akin to how we now view movies, video games or cellphone screens."
The next logical step for Heineman was to figure out how he might re-create this experience using the technology of our century. The decision to make GIFs happened serendipitously.
"I was downloading digital snapshots to my laptop when I got a fleeting sense of 3D as the preview screen flicked quickly between two similar shots. I located the individual photos & flipped back & forth between them continually. The parallax effect of minor changes between the two perspectives created a sustained sense of dimension that approximated the effect of stereo viewing," he wrote. "When I realized how the effect was working, I set about discovering if I could capture the same illusion by layering both sides of an old stereograph in Photoshop & displaying the result as an animated gif. The effect was more jarring than through a stereoscope but no less magic."
Stereographs were used both to educate and entertain the public, as well as in reporting of the period. They were a big hit with people of all classes, and could be humorous, startling, fantastical, or almost too realistic.
"The first effect of looking at a good photograph through the stereoscope is a surprise such as no painting ever produced," Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in 1859. "The mind feels its way into the very depths of the picture. The scraggy branches of a tree in the foreground run out at us as if they would scratch our eyes out. The elbow of a figure stands forth as to make us almost uncomfortable."
The Stereogranimator makes it simple to create GIFs out of the images available, providing a constantly changing, refreshable selection of stereographs for users. Once an image is selected, the user can fiddle with the focal points and speed of the GIF. We tried it out and came up with some of the following images: