These Animated Stereograms Bring 19th Century Photos to Life

Stereoscopic view of a lush mountain valley with a river running through it and coniferous trees in the foreground; rugged mountain peaks rise in the background.

Stereo images have been part of photography since its invention in the first half of the 19th century. Cameras enabled artists to produce two identical images from very slightly different perspectives — all that is needed to create convincing “three-dimensional” images. While technically possible with paintings and drawings, cameras made stereograms significantly easier.

Stereo photography’s popularity has fluctuated, but it has remained in some use for a long time. One of the peaks of its popularity started in the late 19th century, with many photographers capturing images for stereoscopic applications.

A quick browse through various archives will find numerous pairs of images shot side-by-side. One of the largest collections of archival photos belongs to the United States Geological Survey (USGS), of all places. The federal agency has set up a subsection of its photo archives especially for stereographic photography.

Black and white image of a scenic mountain valley with a river meandering through it, flanked by dense forests and towering trees in the foreground.
Bakers Park, Colorado. Photographed by William Henry Jackson (USGS) in 1875 or thereabouts.

“The USGS has a rich historical photographic library containing photography from the late 1800s during the exploration of the West. A subset of this photography was the capturing of stereograph images (two images side by side). The USGS has implemented a method based off of a NYPL open source project (Stereogranimator) to bring together stereograph images into 3D-like animated GIFs,” the USGS explains.

Black and white historical photo of three men and two dogs at a campsite with a large tent in a grassy field. they appear to be in conversation, sitting and standing around scattered camping gear.
A camp scene in Yellowstone National Park. From left to right: James Stevenson, Adams, Frank Bradley, and Dr. Curtis, per the USGS. These men were only together for an 1872 expedition (Hayden Survey). William Henry Jackson also shot these stereoscopic images.

Longtime PetaPixel readers may recognize the term “Stereogranimator.” If so, kudos. The New York Public Library (NYPL) has an extensive collection of stereoscopic images itself — 42,332 as of today — and built an open-source software tool to convert stereograph input images into an animated “3D” GIF way back in 2012. A dozen years later, the tool still lives up to its promise across numerous platforms, including the USGS in 2024.

A black-and-white photo of a mule standing in a grassy field, showing visible skin patches and tethered by a rope. the background is a clear horizon with sparse vegetation.
Jackson also captured a portrait of this pack mule in 1874. Pack mules are often unsung heroes of human exploration.

PetaPixel has selected some images to “stereogranimate,” but there are three dozen in total to browse on the USGS website. If these 36 images don’t satisfy the itch, there’s always the New York Public Library’s 42,000-plus images to watch wiggle.

Vintage sepia photograph of a baseball team with nine players and one coach, all in traditional uniforms and caps, posed with bats and gloves in a serene outdoor setting with trees and a bridge in the background.
The White Oak Cotton Mills baseball team from Greensboro, North Carolina (1909). | New York Public Library
A vintage photograph of a woman in a large hat standing among large white flowers, looking directly at the camera with a slight frown.
This portrait is from Horticultural Hall in Fairmount Park, Philadelphia. It was shot between 1860 and 1910, with the current best guess being 1903. | New York Public Library

Although 3D viewing technology has reached heights nobody in the 1800s could have ever dreamed of, there remains something charming and appealing about regular old stereographic photos. In the case of 19th century history, stereograms are the best — and really only — way to get a sense of what a place looked like in three dimensions, even if only in facsimile form.

Image credits: USGS, New York Public Library