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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."

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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.

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.