A View-Master view of anatomy
Exhibit has images a world away from the norm for device
In the 1930s, when Portland resident William Gruber invented the View-Master, he wanted it to be more than a toy. He believed that his device for viewing 3-D images had educational and scientific value.
Now, seven decades later, that insistence on making the View-Master useful has led to the most disturbing exhibit ever mounted at Portland's 3D Center of Art and Photography: Gruber's masterwork was a series of high-quality, three-dimensional photographs of dissected medical cadavers, originally released on View-Master reels as 'A Stereoscopic Atlas of Human Anatomy.'
Paul Brenner, director of the the 3D Center, has selected and enlarged some of the most striking of these images to hang, gallery-style, starting with a First Thursday opening on July 2. Each image is actually two photos mounted side-by-side that, when seen through a special viewer, leap into relief.
At first, the detailed color photos look like they could have come from any textbook. But look through a viewer at two seemingly identical images of a gray mass, marked with red and blue squiggles - it's a shocking experience. Suddenly, there's a real human brain swelling toward you out of the half-shell of its cutaway skull. There are also views of hands and feet, eyes and ears, and the torso. This exhibit is not for the squeamish.
The 3D Center is the only 3-D museum in the United States. Its collection covers the history of three-dimensional imagery, from the scenic stereocards of the Victorian era to the work of contemporary artists. The center has a special connection to View-Masters, though, because they were invented in Portland, and were manufactured in the area until 2000 (they are now made in Mexico under the Fisher-Price brand name).
With the dawn of photography, stereoscopic viewing cards became a popular parlor entertainment. Individual cards were inserted into a special viewer that used the mind's natural capacity to take information from each eye and merge it to create depth perception.
Gruber, an amateur photographer, was inspired by the new Kodachrome film to come up with a more efficient way to create the same effect. Gruber was born in Germany in 1903 and arrived in Portland in 1935. He was making a living by tuning pianos and growing mushrooms when he came up with the idea of putting twin views on rotating cardboard disks.
During a trip to the Oregon Caves, Gruber met Harold Graves, an executive with the Portland-based Sawyer's Photo Services. Sawyer's made and sold scenic postcards, and Graves himself was a stereo photography enthusiast. He saw the potential for Gruber's big idea. An early version of the View-Master was a hit at the 1939 New York World's Fair, and Sawyer's thrived on its new product.
COURTESY OF STANFORD UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDICINE • Dr. David Bassett (left), with William Gruber, worked for more than a decade to create three-dimensional photographs of dissected human cadavers. Their work is on display this month at the 3D Center of Art and Photography in Northwest Portland.
At first, Sawyer's continued in the scenic landscape niche, with early reels portraying the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns. Gruber became an active part of the operation.
'When they started,' Brenner says, 'Gruber did a lot of the photography himself. He also convinced Sawyer's to publish some of these scholarly editions.'
Gruber's interests were far-ranging. In 1949, he collaborated with a mycologist to produce 'Mushrooms in Their Natural Habitat' - 33 reels accompanied by a weighty scientific guidebook. In 1961, Gruber released a four-volume set on Chinese art that had taken him about 10 years to create.
But Gruber's biggest project was 'A Stereoscopic Atlas of Human Anatomy,' which he worked on from 1952 until 1965, the year of his death. Gruber's collaborator on the atlas was David Bassett, a renowned dissectionist who was teaching at the University of Washington when he met Gruber. The two continued their partnership when Bassett moved on to become a lecturer at Stanford University.
Over the years, Bassett set aside time to prepare specimens of different body parts from different cadavers. Gruber would arrange the lighting and shoot the bodies with a double camera that he designed himself. The resulting 23-volume set, with more than 1,500 color images, covers the entire body, beginning with the brain and meticulously working down to the anatomy of the foot. Accompanying texts include detailed diagrams.
'The main market for this would have been schools and libraries and medical centers,' Brenner says. 'But they were available for the public.'
He adds, 'From what I understand, medical students still work with these because they were some of the finest dissections that were ever done. And they're in full color, and they're in 3-D, which is pretty rare.'
The collection now belongs to the Stanford University School of Medicine. Curator Robert Chase released a book about the collection,'A Stereoscopic Atlas of Human Anatomy: The Bassett and Gruber Legacy,' in 1994. It's a history of the atlas project and includes a set of 12 View-Master reels showing highlights of the original atlas.
Chase has been helping the 3D Center with the new exhibit - the wall-mounted photos will be supplemented, starting August 6, with a slide show of additional prints and a narrated history of the atlas.
These days, View-Master disks are marketed to children, with themes including Shrek, Winnie the Pooh and SpongeBob SquarePants. It's not quite what Gruber had in mind, but he might be happy to know that his invention has never really been changed. Any disk ever made can be viewed in any View-Master viewer ever made.
Opening reception 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday, July 2 (free); show runs 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, through August 30; 3D Center of Art and Photography, 1928 N.W. Lovejoy St., 503-227-6667, www.3dcenter.us, $5, 14 and under free