by Simon Collings

Half a dozen writhing skeletons are boiling in a large cauldron, eyes glowing red. Over them a green-skinned demon towers, stabbing downwards with his triton. The demon’s purple wings open towards us, near enough to touch. On the archway above his head a single word: Enfer.

It could be a scene from a new 3D fantasy block-buster. But the image actually dates from some time before 1860. Public interest in stereoscopic images was just beginning to take hold in Europe at this time and they remained popular through to the 1890s.  Enfer is one of the earliest examples (perhaps the first) of a genre known as diableries, images of devilry. They are celebrated in a book, published last year by Brian May (guitarist with Queen), a French photo-historian Denis Pellerin, and retired archivist Paula Fleming from the USA. It comes with its own stereoscopic viewer.

Diableries were created in Paris in the 1860s, and many of the cards survive. Dioramas were built using clay models and  photographed, two images being taken at slightly different angles. The pair of images were then printed side by side on card, and tinted and enhanced with coloured gels. When held up against the light and viewed with a stereoscope the images emerge in lurid 3D, complete with raging flames and devils with fiery demonic eyes.


The earliest images served a conventional religious role, but later on the scenes included social and political satire – some of it risky for the times. The antics of Satan and his entourage suggest strongly those of Louis Napoleon and his court. The artists who created the dioramas sought inspiration from classical painters, satirical cartoons, even popular songs.There is a wonderful scene of a newspaper office with the devil as editor. The labels on the drawers of a cabinet include blagues (lies) and canards nouveaux (new nonsense). At the top of the picture a queue of petitioners lodging complaints is seen off by a demon. Truth, a semi-naked maiden, stands forlorn in a cage on the right. Another satirizes the composer Berlioz whose music was considered by many to be  ‘too loud’. One of the skeletons listening to the cacophony has his fingers in his ears.

Brian May has long been interested in stereoscopic cards and in 2009 published A Village Lost and Found, a series of stereoscopic images by the Victorian photographer T. R. Williams. See the London Stereoscopic Company for more information. Nineteenth century stereoscopic cards depicted a wide range of subjects: landscape, portraits, animals, erotic scenes.Hundreds of thousands of cards were printed. People marvelled at the realism and depth-of-field experienced through the viewing devices. Images ‘sprang to life’, seemed almost tangible. These were the forerunners of today’s 3D cinema.