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All GIFs via stereo.nypl.org

Who doesn’t love GIFs?  Nothing like a choppy stick figure animation to remind you of the good old 1990s. Though we have left that formative age, there seems to be a resurgence of interest in this spritely graphics interchange format.

The internet has long been a safe haven of time wasting, but you have to give it to the New York Public Library (NYPL) for putting the GIF to an educational use.

This week, the guys over at NYPL Labs launched their Stereogranimator, which promises to revive interest in the 40,000-strong vintage stereograms in their collection.

The application allows visitors to the site to translate the museum’s collection of stereogram’s into GIF animations. A stereogram, for those like me previously unfamiliar with the format, is a 19th century technology that overlays two seemingly identical photographs side by side to obtain the illusion of three dimensionality.

At one point this was pretty cutting edge stuff and allows for a level of heightened experience that wasn’t possible at the time in photograph. The NYPL is pretty good about digitizing their collection, but the paired photograms don’t translate without a stereoscope. The flickering nature of a GIF is an easy way of rendering this experience for the online viewer.

Sculpture hall images (via stereo.nypl.org/view/10223 & stereo.nypl.org/view/6177)

We asked NYPL’s Ben Vershbow about this new effort:

“The Stereogranimator was conceived to deepen engagement with this existing digital collection, bringing users closer to the original 3D experience that these images were originally intended to afford and giving them a direct, participatory role in the process. Working directly with images opens up one’s perceptions, and empowers the viewer to interpret and enquire.”

Left, “‘Dey ‘aint no use in talkin’, we jes had one scrumptious time.’ 1904” (via stereo.nypl.org/view/12473), and right, “Prospectors returning to camp. 62 degrees below zero, Alaska. 1898-1900” (via stereo.nypl.org/view/6480)

The project is based on a project called Reaching for the Out of Reach run by writer/artist Joshua Heineman. He discovered the 3D possibilities of the GIF by accident while cycling through downloaded stereogram photographs. Heinman explains this process in detail in an essay he wrote for the Huffington Post. Vershbow explains that:

“We had long pointed to Joshua’s work as an example of creative remix of our collections. Late this past year, when the Labs team was established with the resources and mandate to experiment with where the research libraries could go digitally, we started to explore what it would take to translate Joshua’s method into a public web app. We’re definitely trying to signal with this project that the Library is paying attention to the wonderful, creative ways people are using our materials, and how those ideas may wind up being integrated into new library tools and services.”

The project is visually fascinating, though some examples obviously work better than others, and it brings to life a dead technology, but this small online project is a powerful example of what is possible when large institutions listen to their constituents.

In addition to the artistic and genre images we posted here there is a wealth of 19th and early 20th C. imagery that is worth a look, including Brooklyn’s Prospect Park in the snow, historic images of Native American culture, images of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, vintage interiors and, of course, cute cat images, it is the internet after all.

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13 replies on “NY Public Library Breathes the GIFt of Life Into Old Photos”

    1. What’s not to love about an image like “‘Dey ‘aint no use in talkin’, we jes had one scrumptious time.’ 1904”? I don’t imagine a moment from 1904 could feel more alive or immediate. It feels intensely familiar and distinctly now because it’s reminiscent of many meme worthy GIF images I’ve seen on the Internet (http://i3.photobucket.com/albums/y79/IJG/oh_snap.gif), and the pristine albeit dated quality of the image could easily be mistaken as the handy work of the Instagram app. As a product of a generation raised on the Internet, maybe I’m not as easily nauseated by these images because I’m used to losing myself in their loop.
      I think it’s wonderful that NYPL is in tune with the Internet hive-mind and preserving an otherwise obsolete archive, allowing future generations to experience a time when technological wizardry was just beginning to explore the possibility of immersive and mind altering images. We are still at the earliest stage of this realization. 3D home video cameras and glassless 3D televisions have just hit the market.
      For anyone interested, the Smithsonian recently released a set of sterescope images from the Civil War: http://www.npr.org/blogs/pictureshow/2011/06/28/137450464/3-d-motion-pictures-from-the-civil-war.
      Make your own: http://wiggle.sourceforge.net/wiggler/source.html
      Here’s one I made of bikes in Williamsburg: http://t.co/210lv4m

      1.  How the hell do you get that static images are now obsolete?  Do they all have to shudder, twitch, and jump to somehow not be obsolete?

          1.  How so?  Certainly its not common anymore, but outside of juddering gifs and still highly uncommon 3d tvs and 3D images/glasses that are about as uncommon as stereoscopes outside of theaters, what has really replaced it to make it obsolete?

  1. So, these otherwise amazing images that are best appreciated as stereograms are now presented to us as…. twitchy gifs?  I guess its the best medium for those who are bored by static images but don’t quite have the attention span required for even short videos.

    1. You see twitchy where I see a more faithful rendering of reality with a sense of depth and vitality that a flat 2D image cannot provide. These ‘juddering’ images give a momentary glimpse that is both static and dynamic, in a way similar to new digital cameras like the Lyto Camera:http://goo.gl/LZLlS  that capture a full field of light so a single image is viewable from multiple points of focus. I can see where some of these particular images seem gimmicky, but see them merely as a proof of concept, flexing of the newfangled.
      I haven’t seen many 3D printed sculptures that were noteworthy works of art, apart from being marvels of innovation (the 3D printed skull from the most recent art hack a day comes to mind), but undoubtedly great works will be produced using these unexplored methods.

      1.  Ah, but the thing is… this nauseating juddering is not necessary to unlock all that depth and vitality.  a stereo viewer does the same, but without the constant panning.  But that.. because its not computer based is now considered “obsolete”… like a child that refuses to play with any toy that doesn’t light up and make noise.

        As for the Lyto and 3D printer… interesting and I share your optimism for the 3D printer, though I doubt you will ever see too much that wouldn’t be done by a talented sculptor.  Frankly, I don’t see this as an unexplored method so much as a new way to approach a centuries old medium.  Its not really necessary for great work… not that I would have a problem with anyone using it.  Its just a shortcut for the artists using it… and great work is great work shortcuts or no.

        The Lyto is interesting, but outside of it being another way to allow post-visualization of the photographic image, I’m not so far seeing much in the way of anything new being created by this tool.  I’m sure someone will find something interesting to do with it, but as with most digital tools it allows a tiny number of people to do something great while opening the floodgates of mediocrity for all the rest.

        1. I appreciate your willingness to continue this dialogue and I pretty much agree with all your points. Just because something is new doesn’t make it profound, nor does it make it better than past methods. After this conversation, I’m definitely going to check out a stereoscope, if I can find access to one in NYC.
          The thing is, had these images not been converted for online viewing, this story would not have been written, and this conversation would not have happened. So, I’m all for technology making art more accessible, but function will never usurp form, at least in the fine arts.
          You’ve essentially raised in my mind an unsettling conclusion I’m most inclined to ignore, inevitably as technology continues to exponentially progress forward, culture is becoming largely defined by it, and we are losing sense of what came before, devaluing whatever isn’t ‘of the moment’ or ‘trending on twitter’. 15 minutes of fame reduced to 15 ephemeral seconds. Our inability to savor anything, our addiction to instant gratification, is leaving us insatiable. Work that should be seen as profound, but requires a degree of imagination or mental processing, is left by the wayside for whatever can be immediately consumed as a bytesize chunk of stimulation. Damien Hirst’s spot paintings represent to me the essential quandary of contemporary culture, the only way to make an impression on the YouTube attention span is through the onslaught of an easily expressed emotion, which merely results in a a ‘juddering’ effect similar to these GIFs, a sustained response to the fragments as a whole, but one that is hardly more elevated in feeling than our immediate reaction to the first bit. Like chewing gum that stops tasting so great after a few seconds in your mouth. The flavor lingers, but that first fully infused chew is really the only thing worth remembering. I guess my point is Damien Hirst=Juicy Fruit, short and sweet, but soon enough you’ve got a big wad of nothing that you would rather just spit out after a few minutes, once your jaw gets tired.

          1.  Too busy to reply in depth at the moment, but I thought I would mention that the packaging for the last album by the band TOOL originally had a stereoscope built into it.  Might be the cheapest way to get one if you can find a copy of it that still has that type of packaging.

  2. As someone who collects old stereoscopic images, I agree that it’s not quite like looking at them through the stereoscope, and you are more likely to feel ill. However, I love that the NYPL is trying to make their archives more engaging to an online audience. (I just spent way too much of my week on the map warper: 
    http://maps.nypl.org/warper.) If you sort of zone out to the speed of the twitching image, you a quick time travelling glimpse of the 3D effect.

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