View*Productions was founded in 1997 by Michael Kaplan and Gregory Terry to document and publish great works of architecture using stereoscopic photography.
Michael Kaplan is Professor of Architecture, Emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he taught architectural design and theory. Winner of the AIA Education Honors Award in 1991, he is a licensed architect and has lectured and published widely on cultural aspects of architecture. A veteran stereo photographer, his lecture on the history, theory and practice of 3-dimensional architectural photography has been presented at venues throughout the United States.
Gregory Terry is a graduate of the University of Tennessee School of Architecture. He received a Master of Architecture with Graphic Design concentration from North Carolina State University, winning the Bronze Medal for the most outstanding School of Design thesis entitled “A Center for View-Master Technology.” Greg is also a founding partner in the design firm Studio Four Design, located in downtown Knoxville, TN.
Sometime in the mid-1990s there was a knock at the door of my office in the University of Tennessee architecture building. In walked Greg Terry, a former architecture student whom I hadn't seen in several years. It had always been a pleasure to see Greg as he had been one of my brightest students, full of abounding energy and always eager to take an assignment a few steps further than required, surprising even me with the results. In the years since his graduation, Greg had married, toured the country, and pursued his interest in stereo photography that had developed in my classes where I had used the technique as both an educational and representational tool. In lectures and seminars I would project 3D photos from my personal collection in an attempt to more realistically display important works of architecture and urbanism. For students who had never been to a Frank Lloyd Wright house, or experienced the space of an Italian piazza, the technique was compelling, to say the least. I also used 3D to document the students' own work, both for my record and the students' portfolios.
On the side, I started to play with the idea of publishing architectural photographs on View-Master reels, a technology still in use and one that had intrigued me since childhood. Who hadn't grown up with a View-Master viewer and a selection of the scenic wonders of the world, all in brilliant Kodachrome and 3-dimensions? By coincidence I found a Personal camera in a local flea market, obtained a film cutter and projector from a dealer and began making my own test reels. View-Master was still in business producing custom reels on special order at a modest cost.
The problem for me became how to package the product. One could, of course, throw the reels into a small transparent bag along with a little descriptive booklet, or glue them in their paper sleeves to the binding of a conventional book. Both had been done but I didn't think either was a satisfactory solution. Somehow the package should reflect the physical character of the reels, provide protective storage and integrate the reels with a printed component that would included liner notes about the buildings, plans and technical info about the photographs. The solution began to reveal itself when I found an appropriate box, a small polycarbonate jewel case designed to provide dust-free storage of 3-1/2" computer diskettes. These were manufactured in a neighboring state and because of scales of production, the boxes were available at a reasonable cost. The design of the storage folder came, characteristically, while sitting on the front porch of a friend's house.
And then in walked Greg Terry, reminding me about the View-Master publishing project, and wondering whether any progress had been made. He restated that if the project ever went forward he wanted to be a part of it. I promised that I'd be in touch, and we later set up our first meeting in December 1996 to discuss the business and artistic aspects of what would become view productions. Central to that discussion was a consideration of our first project. It seemed that Frank Lloyd Wright's famous masterwork Fallingwater would be an obvious choice, given its spatial complexity and rich textural quality. I had taken some test reels in the View-Master format when i visited the house in Bear Run, Pennsylvania, the previous year, and the resulting images confirmed my belief that it was a perfect candidate for 3-dimensional representation. it would be necessary to formulate a licensing agreement with the house's legal owner, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and our initial discussions, while positive, suggested that the project might take more than a year to complete.
Coincident with planning the company, however, came news that Bruce Goff's spectacular Joe Price House and Studio, in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, had just burned to the ground in what was said to be a case of arson. I had visited the house in 1992 and informally photographed it in 3-dimensions using a TDC Stereo Colorist camera. Those slides had become the basis for a lecture on Goff's work that I gave to my students. We thought a Goff packet would both catch the attention of the media and provide an easy entry to licensing discussions with other properties. What was needed, though, was to photograph two additional Goff houses and we immediately set out to do this in the spring of 1997, hoping to have our first 3-reel packet ready for distribution by the end of the year.
At the time, View-Master was still producing custom reels and viewers at its Beaverton, Oregon, plant, and the transfer of the Goff images to reels went very smoothly. The thousand sets of reels were available by the end of the year as hoped and the product went to market in January 1998 to enthusiastic critical reviews. Metropolis, the New York design monthly, gave us a full-page spread that led to interest from other magazines and newspapers, as well as dozens of shops that saw sales potential in this unique product. Urban Center Books in New York became our first retailer.
The successful release of the Bruce Goff packet gave us the confidence and financial means to proceed with the Fallingwater project. We had completed the licensing agreement and began photographing the house in 1997, even before the Goff had been completed. When I arrived at the site for the first stereo shoot, the great cantilever - the part of the living room that projects over the stream - was being buttressed by a large steel truss that would be noticeable in the final images. The truss was installed to halt further sagging of the cantilever caused by the deterioration of its internal reinforcing rods. While a design for the structure's stabilization was being prepared by engineer Robert Silman, we decided to photograph the building as it was, including the temporary shoring, after we received assurance that we could return to re-photograph the building after its rehabilitation (which we did). Four trips were needed to photograph the main and guest houses inside and out, and to get the "classic" view (from across the stream) in elusive sunshine.
By the time we finished the photography, another hurdle presented itself. Tyco, the owner of View-Master, sold the plant in Beaverton to Fisher-Price, a subsidiary of Mattel, and the further production of custom reels - those produced for private customers on special order - was put on hold until the unit could be reorganized. After a decision was made to continue production, Fallingwater was published in March 1998 to rave reviews and great interest by the press and online media. The packet, our most popular, was reissued three times. The most recent version included a revised first reel showing the restored exterior following the structural stabilization.
My research into Frank Lloyd Wright's personal interest in 3-dimensional photography led to the discovery that his Johnson Wax complex in Racine, Wisconsin, had been photographed in 3D early in the 1950s by Arthur Drexler, then-curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Jonathan Lipman, in his exhaustively detailed book on Johnson Wax, included several of these Kodachrome slides (in 2D, of course), so I pursued the matter with the current curators at MoMA. We were able to find 40 or so of the slides and license the use of seven of them in what was to become our third packet, "Johnson Wax: The Wright Buildings." The early images were supplemented by 14 of my own, taken on two trips to Racine. Liners notes were based on an essay by the late Reyner Banham that succinctly summed up the unique qualities of the buildings.
It was our intent to next feature the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, designed by the Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry. We contacted the Guggenheim in New York and received approval for the project, pending permission from the administration in Bilbao that maintained autonomy over its branch. Unfortunately, such an agreement was never forthcoming, so we moved on to photograph other work by Gehry who some considered the world's greatest living architect. The theme of the project - early designs using sheet metal as cladding - was determined by my having already photographed the Sheet Metal Craftsmanship exhibit commissioned by the Sheet Metal Worker's International union and constructed within the National Building Museum in Washington DC (formerly the Pension Building). Completed in two months, the exhibit pavilions were clad in steel, brass and copper, and dismantled after the close of the exhibit in 1989. Our photographs remain the only known stereoscopic documentation of this extraordinary work. Accompanying it in our packet were later Gehry buildings in Toledo and Minneapolis.
After our packets began to receive publicity (and acclaim) in national and international publications, we were contacted by the Eames Office in Pacific Palisades, California, informing us that they had discovered an archive of Kodachrome slides taken by designers Charles and Ray Eames in the early 1950s with a Stereo Realist camera. The slides included the famous modernist Case Study House #3 in Pacific Palisades and miscellaneous views of the designer's own furniture and workshop. We enthusiastically agreed to publish these historic images, a decision that led to a year-long series of licensing negotiations, the meticulous cleaning of the original transparencies (many of which were covered with fungus) and the transfer to the View-Master format. The final reels were featured in an exhibit that opened at the Eames Gallery in Santa Monica in 2002.
One of our long-standing interests was to photograph the work of European expressionist architects, buildings that lend themselves well to representation in 3-dimensions because of their textural richness, spatial complexity and non-conventional geometry. To further that goal, we had applied to the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and were awarded a substantial travel grant to photograph buildings by Hans Scharoun in Berlin and Ralph Erskine in Stockholm. The trip took place in May and June of 2001, and I returned to the US with a large collection of wonderful slides. The first packet to be published from this material was of the work of Scharoun, including the Berlin Philharmonie, a building that I (and many others) consider one of the masterpieces of 20th century architecture.
The success of the Fallingwater set led us to want to do another packet including houses by Frank Lloyd Wright, and we decided to photograph three houses of different sizes and in very different geographic locations. Film producer Joel Silver was forthcoming in letting us photograph his home at Auldbrass Plantation in coastal South Carolina. Similarly, the U-Haul Corporation let us photograph the Grandma House in Phoenix. As a third house, we chose Wright's very largest house, Wingspread, built for the Johnson family in Racine, Wisconsin. This resulted in one of our most beautiful and popular packets, Frank Lloyd Wright: 3 Houses, which was the last set created directly from original film transparencies.
The Alpha Cine lab, at this point, changed the technology for transferring images to reels, presenting us with new challenges and opportunities. Rather than submit transparencies, we were required to provide digital files from scans made of the originals. This required careful scanning and precise color calibration of our computer monitors. The lab printed our files on 35mm negative film which were then copied to the View-Master format using the old 16mm movie cameras adapted for this purpose. Working with digital files enabled us to correct minute size differences between left and right images, adjust the stereo pairs for vertical and rotational alignment, and set the stereo window as we wished it to appear in the final reels. We could also eliminate dust, debris and scratches from the film images.
None of this proved easy to do in reality. To learn the process, we decided to produce a single reel using the new technology rather than take a chance with a 3-reel packet. Several years before, I had photographed the residence of the industrial designer Russel Wright, known for his innovative, mid-20th century dinnerware. The house was sited at the edge of a quarry in the midst of a nature preserve in Garrison NY known as Manitoga. The first test reels were completely out of focus. The second were sharp, but somewhat overexposed, so we sent one of the film images to the lab for color matching. Unfortunately, we never got the color accuracy we wanted, but the reel is still entirely pleasant to view.
By 2007, the economy began to falter and our sales declined, making it difficult to proceed with the second packet photographed years before under the Graham Foundation grant. We nevertheless prepared the images for production using the new digital technology, and when finances permitted we went forward with the Erskine project. Because of the increased cost of reels and our doubts about the popularity of this title - Erskine was little known in the US - we decided to run only 500 copies. The test reels were sharp and had accurate color rendition but a large percentage of the final reels indicated that something was awry with the reel machines in Seattle. Film chips were not being seated properly within their frames, resulting in unviewable images. All the reels had to be rerun, and we were issued credit for the hours of quality control time spent checking every one of 1500 reels.
We had hoped to apply that credit towards a new 3-reel set of Frank Gehry's recent performance spaces that we had already photographed, but when the time came to submit the digital files we learned that Fisher-Price had discontinued production of custom reels. At first we were resigned to the fact that we would be put out of business by this decision, but several loyal customers asked us to be persistent and try to find a way to continue producing our reels. With that encouragement, we contacted both Fisher-Price and Alpha Cine, hoping to persuade someone in the decision-making process to let us at least complete the Gehry project before shutting down the reel operation in Seattle. Needless to say, we were thrilled to receive a response from Fisher-Price indicating that they intended to license custom reel production to Alpha Cine and were negotiating terms to do so. That legal process took about a year and our Gehry reels, featuring the architects' iconic Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, were the first off the new production line.
Several trends have characterized the last 12 years of our existence. We believe the product is as compelling as ever, the proof being that people from around the world continue to buy and enjoy it. With the advent of digital imaging, photography as a mass medium has moved, for all practical purposes, away from film. Images in print and slide form have been displaced by the display on camera and computer screens, iPods and iPads, and digital 'picture frames.' In that ephemeral world where we may eventually lose the photographic images currently being taken, View-Master remains a physical, durable artifact that requires hands-on operation. Possibly more important, its use does not require electricity of any kind, nor does it demand tethering or synchronizing to a computer. While it still requires a manufacturing process that, as we have learned, can have lethal consequences, it is uncertain how its environmental footprint compares to its electronic counterparts. Intending to make more of our image library available to more people, we are beginning to scan our vast archive of images for digital stereoscopic display on both television and computer screens. While we love the View-Master format, we are aware that technology is changing and are determined to move with it to the extent that it is practical.
Related to changes in technology are changes in the way we advertise and sell our products. When we began in 1997, we depended largely on the print media to review our packets and get the word out to potential customers. As the internet grew in popularity and coverage, more of our advertising has taken place in the digital realm, with our website viewproductions.com taking a position of importance next to sales generated by Amazon and Ebay. Once selling primarily through a network of nearly 40 retailers internationally, we now sell our products mostly online. In fact, one of the disturbing facts of retail life has been the closing of most architecture bookstores in the US, with only a handful surviving the assault of the internet and a weak economy.
While View Productions doesn't provide a living for either Greg or myself - he luckily has a 'day job' - it is a wonderful hobby that brings joy both to ourselves and the thousands of customers who buy and look at our pictures. As it has for over seventy years, the View-Master format is still magical, providing entertainment and knowledge to those who peer into its world, just as William Gruber imagined it would.
©2011 Michael Kaplan