National Media Museum blog

We explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image, and its impact on our lives.

Les Diableries: Devilish entertainment in three dimensions

Brian May, astronomer and Queen guitarist, is also a passionate and knowledgeable collector of Victorian photography – and in particular, of 3D (stereoscopic) photography.

Later this week, May and co-authors Denis Pellerin and Paula Fleming are releasing a book about a fascinating and unusual series of stereo photographs, which were something of a phenomenon in 19th century France, and bear the wonderful name ‘Diableries’.

The Diableries, which translates roughly as ‘Devilments’, show the riotous goings-on in Hell, presided over by the Devil himself, and peopled with a lively cast of skeletons, demons and ghouls.

Bal Chez Satan [Ball at Satan's House], front lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Bal Chez Satan [Ball at Satan's House], front lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Bal Chez Satan [Ball at Satan's House], back lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Bal Chez Satan [Ball at Satan's House], back lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The scenes were intricately sculpted in clay on a tabletop and then photographed with a 3D camera. The finished cards were viewed in a binocular-style viewer, giving a 3D effect.

The Diableries were hand-coloured on the reverse, which only becomes apparent when they are back-lit, as the scene transforms from day to night and the colours suddenly burst into life. As a finishing touch, the eyes of the skeletons and other creatures were pierced and dabbed with coloured gelatin, causing them to glow red in a most striking and macabre fashion!

Les Régates à Satanville - Enfer [The Boat Race in Satanville – Hell], front lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Les Régates à Satanville – Enfer [The Boat Race in Satanville – Hell], front lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Les Régates à Satanville - Enfer [The Boat Race in Satanville – Hell], back lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Les Régates à Satanville – Enfer [The Boat Race in Satanville – Hell], back lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

There is only a little in the way of Hellish torment to be seen in the Diableries. The capering skeletons and demons mostly seem to be enjoying themselves in surprisingly everyday activities – this is an Underworld of wine-making, cooking, eating, dancing, boat races, plays and partying – surely Heaven can’t be this much fun?

Les Vendenges en Enfer [The Grape Harvest in Hell], front lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Les Vendenges en Enfer [The Grape Harvest in Hell], front lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Les Vendenges en Enfer [The Grape Harvest in Hell], back lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Les Vendenges en Enfer [The Grape Harvest in Hell], back lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Les Cuisines de Satan [Satan's Kitchens], front lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Les Cuisines de Satan [Satan's Kitchens], front lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Les Cuisines de Satan [Satan's Kitchens], back lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Les Cuisines de Satan [Satan's Kitchens], back lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

It is easy to be captivated by the ingenuity, eccentricity and sheer madness of the Diableries, but another layer of meaning becomes evident when the political and social context in which they were produced is known – often they contained satirical comment on Napoleon III’s authoritarian rule and the decadent lifestyle of the bourgeoisie.

This aspect of the Diableries has been investigated by the photohistorian Denis Pellerin and can be read about in Brian May, Denis Pellerin & Paula Fleming’s, Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell, which is published by the London Stereoscopic Company on 10 October 2013.

Post written by Ruth Kitchin, Associate Curator

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Situated right in the heart of Bradford, UNESCO City of Film, we explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image and its impact on our lives. Our three cinemas include the UK's first IMAX theatre.

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