Anon, “Le Laboratoire de Satan,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, stereocard (detail)
When Parisian optician Jules Duboscq introduced the stereoscopic viewer in 1850, few could have imagined the raging success stereo photography would enjoy internationally for the remainder of the century. By 1858, the London Stereoscopic Company boasted of having over 100,000 images for sale, and in 1901, New York’s Underwood & Underwood claimed to manufacture 23,000 stereocards a day.
Anon, “La Torture en Enfer,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, stereocard
Stereographs do not lend themselves well to long, contemplative viewings in the same way that photographs of the era by artists like Baldus or Le Secq do. Stereoscopy is built on novelty; the stereo image reaches its “climax,” as Ian Jeffrey puts it, “when depth was grasped or focus achieved.” Once the photographs pop into three-dimensional illusion, viewers are typically more interested in repeating the phenomenon with new slides than studying the palm-sized pictures. These viewing habits, combined with the wild popularity of the form, and the relative low cost of production resulted in thousands upon thousands of mostly unremarkable stereoscopic slides in the late 1800s.*
Anon, “Satan Malade,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, hand-tinted stereocard (detail)
Certainly the most remarkable body of work made for stereo viewing, however, was Les Diableries, a suite of 72 cards published anonymously in Paris, 1861. Produced during the rise of the Second Empire, Les Diableries‘s sculptural visions of satanic torture and merriment would have meant swift imprisonment for the artists under Napoleon III’s authoritarian rule. The photographer of these wonderfully macabre tableaux remains anonymous, although several of the sculptures appear to have signatures carved into the plaster, leading many to conclude that Pierre Adolphe Hennetier (1828-1888) was responsible for creating most of the tabletop dioramas.
Anon, “Conference par Mlle. Satan,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, stereocard (detail)
The artists most likely wished to remain anonymous for reasons beyond the profane: Les Diableries was a vicious satire on the Second Empire and Napoleon III, who was dubbed “Napoleon the Small” by Victor Hugo and mocked by Karl Marx. I haven’t studied the stereoscopes (or French history) enough to analyze them through this political lens, but a New York Times article from 1856 gives us a general list of grievances that may have been on the anonymous artists’ minds.
The state of things revealed there reminds us forcibly of the days of Louis XVI. Put a plebeian Emperor in the place of the legitimate old King and the aristocracy of wealth in place of the aristocracy of blood,… the stern unbending mind of Louis Napoleon in place of the soft, wavering, pliable heart of Louis Capet, and all the other features of both epochs—fraud in the higher, disgust in the middle, and want in the lower classes, blindness in the ruler, inanity in the clergy, impotence in the press, levity in literature, scandal in the theatres, debauchery in morals, cynicism in ethics, and depravity in society—all will with some slight modifications be found to be the same.
(It does feel safe to assume that “Visite du Soleil à Satan,” pictured here, represents an imaginary meeting between Napoleon III and Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” who was widely regarded as one of the country’s great historical rulers.)
Anon, “Visite du Soleil à Satan,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, stereocard (detail)
Regardless of its political underpinnings, Les Diableries mesmerizes on countless levels: the macabre charm of its handcrafted anti-Christs, the visual richness of its miniature scenes, the subversiveness of its anonymous origin, the way it presages unforgettable photographs and films by Jan Svankmajer, David Levinthal, Hans Bellmer, and Lori Nix by a full century (70 years in Bellmer’s case). But most of all, these images arrest us because of their exclusion from the historical canon: Who among us was taught that photographs like these circulated the streets of Paris during the decade of Le Gray and Disdèri? Given the lack of scholarship on Les Diableries, I’d guess very few.
Anon, “Le Loterie Infernale,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, stereocard
Pockets of political and aesthetic eccentricity like these remind me of an interview with Malcolm Daniel, Curator of Photography at the Met. “It remains one of the things that’s so exciting about photographic history, that there’s so much there to discover and also to present for the first time to the public and have them feel that same sense of discovery,” he says. “In photography, there are artists of absolutely the highest tier about whom little research has been done. We think the person’s already been done if there’s a catalog on Gustave Le Gray or Édouard Baldus. They’re not. There are many great photographers about whom there’s a single book or no book. So that’s exciting. It’s exciting as a curator, as a researcher, as a writer.”
Anon, “Le Jour de l’An en Enfer,” from Les Diableries, c. 1861, stereocard (detail)
The most comprehensive online resource about Les Diableries is unquestionably Early Visual Media, although it leaves a lot to be desired, both in terms of visual documentation and scholarship. In 2004, Portland’s own Stereo World (“The World’s Best 3-D Magazine”) published “Classification of Diableries” by Robert Schrieber, and the only book devoted to the anonymous series is an extremely rare French volume entitled Diableries: La Vie Quotidienne Chez Satan à la Fin du 19e Siècle (Satan’s Day-to-Day Life in the Late 19th Century). Additional images from Les Diableries can be found here, here, here, here, and here.