Photographer Bryan McCormick knows this territory. He has navigated it twice before, once as a historian (his 2013 project with Geoffrey Ellis, Vegas Vernacular, documented Las Vegas’ now largely extinct hand-painted signage) and then as a technician (he was co-proprietor, again with Ellis, of the Las Vegas Camera Club—a now-defunct camera shop and classroom that specialized in Polaroid and other forms of instant photography).
For his newest venture, Personal Space: Stereoscopic Nevada, McCormick returns to historic Las Vegas, and to specialty photography, with a passion. The Nevada Humanities Program Gallery show, running through May 29 (with a reception and curator’s talk on April 4), is equal parts art show and museum exhibition, with a collection of 3D Nevada photography that speaks for itself and a collection of vintage stereoscopic cameras and viewers so comprehensive that it kinda needs McCormick to speak for it.
“The amazing thing is that it really isn’t about the device at all; the whole thing is happening inside your head,” McCormick says. “When you put the viewer up to your eyes, it’s basically like having a theater box that you’re putting on your head. There’s really nothing there except two pieces of paper or film. Your brain is what puts them together and makes the illusion happen. That’s the part people find magical, because it’s so simple. … There’s no mechanism making this happen, no fancy technology at all.”
If you’re old enough to remember View-Master, you know what he’s talking about: perfect, static three-dimensional moments frozen in time. Personal Space will feature some View-Master reels and viewers, but also stereoscopic viewing cards like the kind your great-grandparents might have owned, plus rare 3D cameras, color slide viewers and other 3D devices you likely never knew existed. McCormick spent more than a year collecting this stuff, often closing nail-biter eBay deals just seconds ahead of newly-engaged 3D hobbyists (and longtime hardcore collectors, like Queen’s Brian May).
McCormick is both fascinated and unnerved by how close analog stereoscopic photography is to extinction. “The number of people who can actually fix these machines is down to two in the entire country, and one of them doesn’t want to do it anymore,” McCormick says. “We’ve got a very fragile ecosystem here. When those guys go, and when the cameras no longer function, that could be the end of the road.”
If that’s the case, Personal Space will be a worthy send-off. McCormick engaged two artists—Samantha Forbes and Krystal Ramirez—to help him to create new 3D images of Las Vegas from a local’s perspective. And the vintage photos cover more than 100 years of our state’s history, from our mining boom to the building of Hoover Dam, right through to the creation of the Strip. It’s all here, and close enough to touch.
Personal Space: Stereoscopic Nevada Through May 29; Monday-Friday, 1-5 p.m. Opening reception April 4, 6 p.m., free. Nevada Humanities Gallery, 1017 S. 1st St. #190, 702-800-4670.