Behind the Lens: Photography from another dimension

Over 140 years before the 3-D movie “Avatar” played in area theaters, 3-D had already reached Lawrence. It was September 1867, and photographer Alexander Gardner, his Civil War reportage just ended, rolled his horse-drawn, darkroom wagon, down the dirt surface of Massachusetts Street. The Lawrence Daily Tribune reported:

“Mr. Gardner, a photographic artist from Washington City is in Lawrence, having come to Kansas for the purpose of taking photographic views of remarkable and noted places in our state. He comes here, we believe, under the auspices of the Union Pacific Railway to make draughts of points on the road. He will take a view of Massachusetts Street this forenoon. These views will be a fine advertisement for our state and we hope the artist may have all the assistance and courtesy which our citizens can render him.”

Gardner took several photos on Mass. Street, including one currently displayed on a Journal-World newsroom wall. Interestingly, many of his scenes were captured on stereoscopic negatives. These three-dimensional photographs represent some of earliest photographic records of the state.

Like most photographers drawn to the latest imaging gadget, Gardner was probably intrigued with the potential of 3-D imagery. One of the first stereo cameras had been presented to Queen Victoria at the Universal Exhibition of London in 1851.

Stereo photography requires a two-lensed camera and the production of stereo cards, which consist of two side-by-side photo prints. The photos appear identical but have slightly different perspectives. Viewed in a stereoscope the photos appear as a single three-dimensional view. Many of you have probably spotted these cards and viewers in antique shops or family attics.

The greatest period of popularity for the cards was between 1900 and 1930. One of the largest agencies for stereoscopic photographs was Underwood & Underwood, founded by two brothers in Ottawa in 1882. Their business grew so big they relocated to New York in 1891. By the turn-of-the century, they were producing 25,000 stereoscopic photographs a day with annual sales of stereoscopes around 300,000.

Gardner’s output of stereo cards wasn’t as voluminous. His subsequent portfolio of images titled “Across the Continent on the Kansas Pacific Railroad: Route of the 35th Parallel,” included about 150 photographs. Searching the Library of Congress photography collection site, I found a dozen stereoscopic images taken in the Lawrence area. He captured the Eldridge Hotel, The Crandall house, next door to the Kaw Valley Saloon and a lone Kansas University building atop Mt. Oread.

Even without the aide of a stereoscope to experience our town in 3-D, Gardner’s photographs provide a fascinating and early glimpse of Lawrence.

— Chief Photographer Mike Yoder can be reached at 832-7141. Check out more photos at