The View-Master: A living room tour of the great American landscape
By Juan Miguel Pedraza
A stunning panoramic view of water roaring over a dazzling cascade spreads across Patrick Luber’s field of vision. The scene: Niagara Falls. The image and its near-twin: barely dime-sized.
A sculptor and University of North Dakota professor of art, Luber was looking through a classic View-Master™, a little plastic box with a paperboard-covered notched aluminum disc with seven scenes depicted, each in stereo on two little slide images.
“I began this research project because it had been in the back of my mind for years. It started when I was a kid, always fascinated with View-Masters,” he said. “My uncle had one, and the images stuck in my head, all those images 3D. So about three years ago, I started collecting them again, returning to that sort of fascination.”
This once wildly popular device, the View-Master, the successor to the single image stereo viewers of the 19th century, soon became the focus of a project that culminated in the North Dakota Humanities Council’s award to Luber of the 2006 Larry Remele Memorial Fellowship. Earlier this year he delivered his Report to the People of North Dakota under the fellowship. The lecture, including slides, was about the View-Master.
“Professionally, I also started a number of years ago with this interest as a university-trained artist,” Luber said. “There’s always stigma rolling around art school that landscape painting is dead. Yet what I saw happening was a cultural fascination with landscape painting. You see it in photography, in calendars, and the like, and it got me started down the path of asking about America’s fascination with landscape.”
Luber began investigating the original meaning of landscape painting and why Americans are so fascinated with these scenes. Thus was born a research project.
“When the ‘fine arts’ abandoned landscape painting, where did that interest go? It went to movies, western movies, book art, tourism, and all of that moved toward View-Master,” said Luber. “The whole idea of the landscape as national identity took other cultural forms.
“I’ve always been fascinated by things from pop culture,” said Luber, who also is working on a project on Mexican folk art. “I like examining the ways they’re communicating deeper ideas about our culture. Artists such as Bev Doolittle, Thomas Kinkade, and Terry Redlin could not be successful without tapping into something that resonates with people.”
“Some folks claim that the age of mechanical reproduction — when we were first able to make multiple copies of things — debased art,” Luber observed. “But mass reproduction did not debase anything; actually, it helped to promote the landscape as a symbol of national identity without debasing the original images.”
The View-Master scenes of places such as Niagara Falls and other big-vista landscapes helped people to connect to their own concept of the country, he says.
View-Master was invented by Portland, Ore., organ maker and photographer William Gruber, who modernized the old stereograph with Kodachrome slide film. Two images, one for each eye and one slightly different from the other, were viewed simultaneously to simulate 3D. Gruber and Harold Graves, who ran Sawyer’s Inc., a postcard company, launched the venture that soon grabbed people’s imaginations.
The View-Master landscape scenes concretely linked new generations to a national effort at image building.
“There was a conscious effort on the part of civil engineers to plan roads for a so-called ‘windshield culture,’ by which I mean that when you drove through a park, the scene framed through the windshield looked like a painting,” Luber said. “There were spectacular vistas, and they harkened back to the grand invented landscape paintings by Bierstadt, Church, and others.”
The View-Master photographers were encouraged to shoot such “windshield” scenes.
“The Larry Remele project that I did was all interconnected with my work in the history of American landscape, including the View-Master series,” Luber said. “I started with the idea that the American landscape is a symbol for the national identity; painters in the 19th century gave shape to that, people see those images in museums, in prints, in View-Master reels, and then they say ‘I want to see that,’ and then you have a tourism industry.”
From that followed the tourist brochures, the travel books, and, later, View-Master images and travel movies.
“In these travel books, you see authors start to ‘instruct’ tourists how to look at the landscape,” Luber said, “like you’re looking at a painting, for optimal beauty or effect.”
“The View-Master totally isolates the viewer’s experience,” Luber observed. “Mentally, you project yourself into the landscape — I argue that it’s similar to landscape painting with controlled lighting. You don’t focus on the room, but gaze into the picture.”
After the great landscape artists came the camera, which quickly became a personal device for creating images, Luber notes.
“People take pictures of the landscape, and the idea about what is a landscape is already formed,” he said. “Those pictures mimic the traditional idea about landscape that’s now firmly in place in the culture.
“Then View-Master came along in 1939 and made a handy-dandy version of the stereograph, much handier than the 19th century version. They sent photographers out, and their compositions communicated some of the original ideas that America holds about the landscape. Thus, cultural norms and ideas were transmitted into yet another century, not randomly, but codified.”
In fact, Luber notes, Sawyer’s, the original manufacturer and longtime distributor of the View-Master, began as a photofinishing company.
“Sawyer’s then diversified into the picture postcard business, largely serving the national park and tourist industry in the 1920s and 1930s, and then introduced the View-Master,” Luber said. “The company already had experience in photographing the landscape and connecting the idea of the landscape to national identity and the tourist industry.”
When Mattel, the international toy and game maker, acquired View-Master, the landscape period was doomed. Through its Fisher-Price division, Mattel remarketed the View-Master as a toy with cartoons and characters from TV shows.
“Sawyer’s always maintained for most of their company history that View-Master was for edification,” Luber observed. “They always tried to market it as an educational tool. In their 1930s to 1950s heyday, Sawyer’s marketing was always in drugstores, associated with photography section. Nowadays, you’ll find the View-Master in the toy section, repackaged, remarketed as a toy, not so much as an educational tool.”