About This Artifact
Videos and movies help to tell the story of our lives today, but how were these stories told in the mid 1800's? Stereographs (dual photographs viewed with a stereoscope) preserved events more than 150 years ago, and much like today's films, they were sometimes staged. This stereograph card shows a model diorama set up by two New England photographers. It was the setting for a series of cards used to depict a whale hunt. A series of twelve more cards follow, and show the hut as viewed from a nearby ship.
Following the decline of the whaling industry in the years after the Civil War, the photographers Richard G. Shute and his father Charles H. Shute chose to immortalize the dying trade. In March of 1868, they achieved regional acclaim for their work Stereoscopic Views of a Whaling Voyage. Together, they created an elaborate diorama using detailed models of a whaling ship, several whale boats, whales, and a seascape. The model for the whale ship, the Ulysses S. Grant, was about 6 feet long and built with meticulous detail with, according to Shute, "a common pocket knife". The pair insisted on accurate detailing of rope, block and sail, oars, spades, and harpoons. Their only concession was the short distance between the ship and its prize, due to space limitations in the studio.
By photographing the diorama as twelve scenes, the story of the whale hunt was captured in a practical way that would allow the viewers to experience each stage of the hunt. It begins with the sighting of a school of whales, follows with the chase and capture of a whale, and ends with the process of collecting the whale oil. The Shutes made small changes in the shaping of the sails, the direction of the American flag, the various angles of the whales' open jaws, and the actions of the whalemen, all which mimicked the passage of time during the hunt. The final result is an awe-inspiring view. One can almost imagine the feel of the salt spray off the water and hear the call of the gulls. Interestingly, this group of stereographic views represents one of the earliest examples of the use of whaling as a theme for entertainment purposes.
After a fire blazed through their studio in 1872, destroying the building and all of the contents inside, the Shutes recreated the whaling diorama with more detail and clarity for a second run of the cards.
Questions for Further Thought
- The photography studio of Charles H. Shute and Son chose to set up a model diorama of the whale chase. Why do you think they did not just photograph an actual whaling voyage?
- In 1868, the photographers named their model whaling ship the Ulysses S. Grant. Keeping the historical significance of the events at the time in mind, why do you think they chose this name?
- Why would Charles H. and Richard B. Shute want to immortalize the dying trade of the whaling industry?