Daily Picture Show

Secret Stereographs: Brian May Of Queen Reveals A Pastime

When Brian May hears the word "stereo," odds are he doesn't think of a boom box, but rather the way in which we humans see. Which may be surprising, as May is most commonly known as a member of the band Queen. But here's an endearing fact: When May wasn't wailing on his guitar, he was poring over astrophysics books. And in today's interview with Fresh Air host Terry Gross, he explains his unexpected passion for stereoscopic images.

Brian May
Courtesy of Brian May

A stereograph consists of two images placed side by side — one for the left eye and one for the right. When viewed through a stereoscope, the images merge into one, giving an illusion of depth, or three dimensions. Which is how we humans see: our left and right eye combine two slightly different perspectives into one view. As May told Gross, "It's the magic of seeing two flat-looking pictures and then ... the whole thing just springs into life. ..."

May says he spent a lot of time on the road searching for these rare pictures.

"All throughout those days when we were in Queen on tour, I would get up and think, 'Hmm. I'm in Philadelphia for one of few times in my life. What will I do?' Very often I would ... go out and try to find someone who would sell me some stereoscopic photographs, because it was always a passion."

May recently completed a Ph.D. in astrophysics and published a book of his stereograph collection titled A Village Lost and Found. His fascination with this type of photography began at a young age, he explains, when he found a stereograph in a cereal box.

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    Brian May of the band Queen was always fascinated by stereoscopic images, especially those made by T. R. Williams. The photographer had a series called "Scenes in Our Village," depicting life in a small English village at the beginning of the 1850s.
    Brian May/London Stereoscopic Company
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    May's book, A Village Lost and Found, shows a selection of these stereographs, which he curated. This pair of images, called The Squire's House, will appear 3-dimensional when viewed through stereoscopic glasses.
    Brian May/London Stereoscopic Company
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    "Lo, to thy peaceful scenes do I returnMy home! and hail thee with a joy sincereEach well-known object meets my earnest gazeAnd whispers to my heart the bliss of home."
    Brian May/London Stereoscopic Company
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    Lane Leading to the Farm. Although May obviously did not invent the stereoscope, he did devise the collapsible type that come with his book. The verse that accompanies the images was written by T. R. Williams, the original photographer.
    Brian May/London Stereoscopic Company
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    "Seen with the artist's eye, how many a spotOn nature's face that seems a simple blotTeems with rich images and beauties rare!Taught to appreciate the traveller there"
    Brian May/London Stereoscopic Company
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    Road Through Our Village. May hunted for these stereoscopic images throughout his worldwide travels with Queen. After years of collecting, he reassmbled the scattered images.
    Brian May/London Stereoscopic Company
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    "Unmodernized, unfashioned by the greatOur ancient hamlet keeps its quiet stateSeldom you'll visit a more peaceful sceneFor visitors are few and far between"
    Brian May/London Stereoscopic Company
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    John Sims at his Pigstye. With the help of his research partner as well as an online audience, May was able to locate the town in which these stereographs were made.
    Brian May/London Stereoscopic Company
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    "John with content now views his fattening hogDreams of plump bacon and the Christmas logFor this with him in truth is dainty fareBut to complete the feast we add the pomme-de-terre."
    Brian May/London Stereoscopic Company

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Through the years, May's interest in stereographs became more specific — and more serious. In his travels, he began hunting for images taken by one photographer whose name kept recurring: T.R. Williams. "I felt drawn to Williams as an artist," he writes in the book's introduction, "perceiving an uncanny parallel between his world, balanced on that fine line between 'art for art's sake' and art for an audience, and my own world, in rock music."

The hunt escalated to obsession. May and his research partner posted Williams' stereographs online, using crowdsourcing to encourage readers to geotrack and date the images. After years of research, May published his magnum opus in 2009 — a history of T.R. Williams' stereographs from the 1850s. The book even includes a collapsible, focusable stereoscope developed by May.

To learn more about May's life in and outside of Queen, including a technical explanation of the hit song "We Will Rock You," check out the full interview.

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