Michael Lesy: Looking Backward

Exhibition Website

Mar 11 2017 - Jul 15 2017

Michael Lesy: Looking Backward looks at how the United States viewed the world at the dawn of the twentieth century. Presented in tandem with the release of Lesy’s book, Looking Backward: Images of the World at the Beginning of the 20th Century, [....] the exhibition is drawn from scholar Michael Lesy’s 2013 Guggenheim Fellowship, which he spent researching in the museum’s Keystone-Mast Collection, the largest surviving archive of stereoscopic photographs.

The photographs featured in the exhibition [....] will utilize various stereoscopic devices that engage images’ sense of three-dimensional depth. These viewing methods include stereoscopes like one might have found in a Victorian parlor, including several historic devices drawn from the California Museum of Photography’s extensive photographic technology collections, as well as 3-D projection, like one might encounter in a 3-D movie today, and the View-Master, a stereoscopic viewer ubiquitous in the second half of the twentieth century.

Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.

Whether or not you go, Looking Backward: A Photographic Portrait of the World at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century is a transporting work of photographic history that offers a haunting vision of how Americans viewed the world at the dawn of the twentieth century.

Pull the yellowed card from the box and slide it into the viewer. Two binocular images, nearly identical, reveal a scene from the past in vivid, three-dimensional detail. Transcending space and time, the card shows the world as it existed in 1900, a moment when technology collapsed borders; when wars ignited between great powers; when natural forces brought disaster on surging, vulnerable cities―a moment very much like our own.

In 1900 the stereograph was king. Its three-dimensional optics created a virtual presence for the viewer. Millions of Americans, especially schoolchildren, absorbed ideas about race, class, and gender from such 3D images, the embodiment of the notion that “seeing is believing.” Drawing on an enormous, rarely seen collection of some 300,000 stereographic views spanning the first decade of the twentieth century, Michael Lesy presents nearly 250 images displaying a riot of peoples and cultures, stark class divisions, and unsettling glimpses of daily life a century ago.

Lesy’s evocative essays reassert the primacy of the stereograph in American visual history. He profiles the photographers who saw the world through their prejudices and the companies that sold their images everywhere. In underscoring the unnerving parallels between that period and our own, Looking Backward reveals a history that shadows us today.   233 duotone photographs

Looking Backward: A Photographic Portrait of the World at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century

  • Photography
  • 20th Century
  • Various artists

Exhibition Venues & Dates