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NY Public Library Breathes the GIFt of Life Into Old Photos

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.”

Studio of Edward L. Henry? ca. 1865 - 1860?-1880?

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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