Photographer Martin Knowles pays tribute to View-Master
By Ken MacIntyre
(January 30, 2024) – For architectural photographer Martin Knowles, there’s nothing quite like viewing a photograph through the nostalgic lens of a View-Master.
Based in the Pacific Northwest, Knowles, 45, is an accomplished photographer who, over the course of his 16 year career, has photographed award-winning commercial and residential buildings and documented annual modernist home tours for both the Vancouver Heritage Foundation and the West Vancouver Art Museum.
Capturing the mid-century’s built environment is one of Knowles’ passions, so when the opportunity arose to recreate View-Master’s unique stereoscopic 3D photographs for his own images, he leveraged a lifetime of experience to bring the project to life.
“I got into photography seriously back in grade eight,” Knowles recounts. “I fell in love with the process. This was film days, so we were working in the darkroom and had the whole magic of seeing images come up from nowhere.”
“Later, I was looking intently at the work of Norman McGrath, Julius Shulman, Ezra Stoller and the like, when I learned that architectural photography was something that people did.”
The integration of indoor and outdoor spaces characteristic of these photographers resonated with Knowles and helped shape his own artistic vision, however, his love of photography may have been ingrained from an even earlier age.
“My parents have the first photo I ever took, at age seven,” Knowles says, proudly noting, “It was of the front of the house. The verticals are vertical, standard hallmarks of an architectural photographer.”
“As with all architectural photography, you can’t overstate the importance of being careful and deliberate about your angles and perspective choices.”
Knowles’ work stands as a testament to the precision reminiscent of his early influences yet it’s his recent homage to the classic View-Master stereoscopic 3D photographs — originally unveiled at the 1939 New York World’s Fair — that sets him apart from his contemporaries.
The inspiration for the project came during a visit to his grandmother’s house in Idyllwild, California, where he stumbled upon a box of View-Master reels from his mother’s childhood. At that time the 3D images typically produced were like scenic postcards.
“I started looking at them, and having been on a lot of house tours, I started thinking ‘what happens if we use this for architecture?’” Knowles explains. “The synergy between the seven 3D images on a View-Master reel and the typical series format of architectural media was a natural fit.”
Nearby Palm Springs was fertile ground for Knowles as he set about photographing buildings and residences designed by noted modernists such as William Krisel and Donald Wexler. Creating the 3D effect proved to be a meticulous process, though.
“Just like with stereo sound where you have two speakers, one for each ear, all 3D processes give you a slightly different image for your left and right eyes.” Knowles explains, “this requires capturing two images photographed at least 63mm apart.”
Knowles’ setup involved a single camera on a nodal slide and a tripod, a departure from the original View-Master process that utilized two film cameras on a special mount. The real challenges, though, unfolded during post-production.
“You’re dealing with two images all the time,” Knowles explains, “and you have to edit and retouch them at the same time, in approximately, but not exactly, the same way because the perspectives are subtly different.”
Despite these complexities, the fruits of Knowles’ labor paid off and are evident in the immersive 3D experience his own View-Modernism stereoscopic viewer and reels provide; an assortment of eye-popping images featuring modernist design from in and around Palm Springs.
While this project has been a source of great personal and professional satisfaction, it’s also allowed Knowles to bring attention to the ongoing plight of mid-century architecture. As more and more mid-century buildings face the risk of demolition and redevelopment, Knowles urges photographers to seize the opportunity to learn from and document these treasures while they still stand.
“Delve into the stories embedded in these structures and connect with owners about the history of the buildings,” Knowles enthuses.
“Despite their apparent visual simplicity, mid-century modern buildings are often ‘deep’ in the stories they’ve borne witness to and the ideas they were trying to embody.”
Knowles’ View-Modernism stereoscopic viewer and Palm Springs reels are available for purchase online at Destination PSP. To commission your own View-Modernism reel, contact Martin Knowles at mkphotomedia.com