Three-D San Diego: The Closest Thing to Time Travel

Our city in depth.

The University of California–Riverside’s California Museum of Photography, which a little over 20 years ago acquired the world’s largest collection of late-19th- and early-20th-century stereoviews and their all-important negatives, is proving to be a treasure trove for historians, as well as other people researching and re-creating the past. Filmmaker Stephen Low has been inspired by what he has discovered there. For his 1998 documentary, Mark Twain’s America in 3-D, he used the museum’s negatives, transferring them to the imax 3-D format. He wouldn’t have been able to make a movie of such clarity without them. His earlier imax 3-D production, Across the Sea of Time, features vintage stereoviews of New York, and these he also selected from the museum’s rich lode. The films are shown at multi-storied imax theaters with twin imax super 70mm projectors — the largest film frame in motion picture history. So far 23 theaters have been built around the country to accommodate them — there are currently 50 worldwide — and Irvine is lucky enough to have one at Edwards Cinemas, where other new imax 3-D films are being marketed to a new generation without memories of headaches at midnight showings of House of Wax.

More locally, the San Diego Stereo Camera Club, founded in 1952 but with a dwindling membership in recent decades, has been signing up new members. In part the fresh interest has been the result of publicity generated by the nonprofit, all-volunteer stereo enthusiasts’ National Stereoscopic Association, which held its annual three-day convention in San Diego in August 1993. With an estimated 1000-plus attendees, it was (and remains) the largest convention turnout in the 25-year history of the Columbus, Ohio–based organization.

On the individual level, Donald S. Kirson, a 42-year-old clinical psychologist who lives with his family in Scripps Ranch, bought a secondhand Realist about four years ago, reviving a boyhood fascination with stereo. He says he found the nearly 50-year-old camera easily (“in 48 hours”), through a Chicago mail-order company, after getting in touch with another mail-order house, Reel 3-D of Culver City, which sells 3-D photographic supplies. An old Clairemont High School friend, David Jon Wiener of La Jolla, was inspired by Don’s example to buy a similar camera in the same way at about the same time. Wiener had shared Kirson’s fascination with 3-D when they were kids.

Summoning images of horror films past, Wiener refers to stereophotography as “the hobby that would not die” and “the hobby in a coma.” Sometimes he even calls it “the hobby that dare not speak its name.” But Reel 3-D, for its part, says it has 37,000 names on its expanding mailing list.

And then there are artists like Vibeke Sorensen who are combining sophisticated stereographics with the latest computer technology to express their own highly personal visions.

As I watch Maya in Sorensen’s living room, I feel pleasantly — slightly but surely — mind-altered, especially as I listen to the accompanying electronic score, composed by ucsd music professor Rand Steiger, Sorensen’s husband.

The visual images are brightly colored, and they are abstract, to be sure — chevrons and paisleys and other curved shapes. But to my surprise they are strangely creaturelike too. They swim and swoop, dive and dance, separate and converge. They make patterns, and the patterns recur — although they are slightly different each time — very much like those created by choreographers. (“Thank you for noticing!” Sorensen says when I make this comment.)

And the shapes are definitely 3-D, with some in the foreground, some in the middle ground, some dashing and dodging around in the background, as mesmerizing as fish in an aquarium can be, although these are ethereal fish.

I enjoy the experience, forgetting the heavy glasses. It’s certainly not entertainment, however. What it seems to be is a representation of the process of thinking. After it’s over, I feel as if I have been looking inside my own head.

Sitting at her dining room table, her dog, Shiva, at her feet, Sorensen tells me, “When I made Maya, I avoided flat shapes, because it’s a curved-space world. Look out the window. There are almost no flat planes in nature.” And yet, paradoxically, she says to the imaginary critic who complains about the lack of “trees and people and houses” in her work, a representation of reality wasn’t her aim. Anyway, she reminds me, there are plenty of abstract shapes in so-called reality. Rub your eyes, she suggests. “Doesn’t it produce great colors? Sometimes I do it and I think, ‘If only I could get that on video.’ When I close my eyes at night I don’t see trees and people and houses. What I see is more like what’s in Maya.”

Above all, she says, what she wanted to do in Maya was to “explore our understanding of the continuum between our interior and exterior worlds.” And for that she needed 3-D.

The work wasn’t merely a labor of love. Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Sorensen worked on it collaboratively, with X-ray crystallographer Lynn Teneyck and computer scientist Phil Mercurio. Their assignment: to design, build, and test the Interactive Stereoscopic Animation System at the San Diego Supercomputer Center. “The scientists wanted to transfer paradigms for interacting with space,” says Sorensen, “and information about stereography from the artistic community” — i.e., herself. As Sorensen explains it, although chemists have long used 3-D imaging (“They think in 3-D, because they visualize molecules”), other kinds of scientists are only just learning to use 3-D for communicating the spatial models of their abstract ideas. Maya was created to “specify and test the parameters” of the Supercomputer Center’s stereoscopic system, to show them how to make animation, and in some cases, to show them that it is possible at all.

Sorensen is now a senior fellow at the Supercomputer Center, as well as professor and chair of the Division of Animation and Digital Arts in the School of Cinema-Television at usc. The 45-year-old Danish citizen who is a permanent resident of the United States received her own degrees at the Royal Academy of Art and Architecture in Copenhagen and at the Center for Media Study at the State University of New York at Buffalo. In the world beyond academia she has been successful too. Her work has been exhibited in museums here and abroad, broadcast on TV, and featured on the Web. (In 1996, she made a ten-second stereoscopic animated film for Absolut Vodka; it can be seen at

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