The monster seemed to jump out of the screen. Shocked and surprised, Colleen Woolpert leapt backwards, but her sister, Rani, never moved.
The two of them, twins and at the time 11 years old, were watching Creature from the Black Lagoon through 3-D glasses at their grandmother’s home. In that moment that Gill-Man lunged toward them, Rani’s strabismus — a visual impairment that affects depth perception and the ability to see in three dimensions —was revealed.
It was also the genesis of Woolpert’s fascination with the perception of sight.
“I wanted to get behind her eyes,” she says.
That motivation set Woolpert off on a journey that has taken her across the U.S. following her curiosities and exploring the meaning of vision “from visual perception itself to abstract concepts like imagination, wonder, and doubt,” she says.
Her fascination with sight has infiltrated her life: as a photographer and artist, a volunteer helping the visually impaired create art and an audio describer for theater performances.
How to see in stereo
Woolpert is used to forging new paths. In 2000, she chanced upon a vintage stereoscope at a Kalamazoo antique store and bought it for Rani, thinking it might help her sister see the world in 3-D. She bought another for herself and began collecting stereographs because “they were cool.”
Stereographs are an early form of three-dimensional photographs that were popular in the late 1800s. Two images — right-eye and left-eye views of the same scene — are brought together as a three-dimensional image through a special viewer (think the more modern-day Viewmaster).
“Stereographs are the little rebel of photography,” Woolpert says. “They’re like photos but not photos. They’re art objects and they are graphic design because the mount that’s around the photographs can be really beautiful too. The art world doesn’t know what to do with them.
The photography world doesn’t even know what to do with them.”
But Woolpert did. Stereographs became the focus of her ambitious art project TwinScope, which has brought stereographs to contemporary audiences through multiple exhibitions and workshops. But in order to undertake the project, Woolpert had to expand her resume a bit and become an inventor.
“Stereographs are challenging to display,” Woolpert says, explaining that a stereoscope is required to see the images as they were meant to be viewed. Unfortunately, antique stereoscopes — handheld viewers to which the stereographs are mounted — didn’t lend themselves well to wall-mounted gallery displays.
“In 2010, I was in graduate school and had made a series of stereographic portraits of my twin sister, and I called them Red Twin Blue Twin and I wanted to put them on display but couldn’t find any viewers that would work in the context of a wall display,” she says.
So she made her own.
Her patented TwinScope Viewer, which she handcrafts in the breakfast nook of her Stuart Avenue home, is composed of wood, custom ground lenses and cast rubber and allows audiences to view historic images that come into three-dimensional focus as the viewer moves the images closer to the device. For exhibitions it is attached to a chain so it can be carried by a viewer from stereograph to stereograph.
Woolpert began using the TwinScope Viewer exhibition stereoscope for her own exhibits, and it caught the attention of museums, collectors and artists from around the world. She has made and sold more than 100 TwinScope Viewers. Among the purchasers were the Museum of Modern Art and the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
But the TwinScope Viewer is more than just a visual tool. It is the critical ingredient in Woolpert’s TwinScope project, in which she curates exhibitions of historic stereographic images as well as those she creates herself to “promote the appreciation and display of stereographs.”
“This is the earliest form of virtual reality,” Woolpert says. “I’d like to help facilitate history coming alive. It’s as if you are witnessing people looking back at you from across time and space.”
Since 2012, the TwinScope Viewer has facilitated stereograph viewing of more than two dozen exhibitions, including those Woolpert has curated in New York, Illinois and Michigan. She has also presented workshops in Texas and Vermont on how to make stereographs.
“Whether I am taking stereographs out of an archive or curating stereographic work, I am elevating stereographs as an art form,” she says.
Kalamazoo in 3-D
Recently Woolpert turned her TwinScope efforts on a subject close to home. With support from a Kalamazoo Artistic Development Initiative grant from the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo, she developed In-Depth Kalamazoo, a series of three site-specific exhibitions featuring stereographs of Kalamazoo from the late 19th century, viewable with TwinScope Viewers.
The first In-Depth Kalamazoo exhibition, titled Our City, opened in November at the Kalamazoo Public Library and featured images of downtown Kalamazoo in the late 1800s. The library has since acquired the exhibition for permanent display in its Local History Room.
The second exhibition, Life of the Mind, ran in February at Western Michigan University’s Zhang Legacy Collections Center and featured scenes from the former Michigan Asylum for the Insane, now the Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital.
The third exhibition — dubbed Hey, Ladies! — opens May 1 at the Ladies’ Library Association building. It will focus on women’s identity in the late 19th century and include historic stereographs of the local building.
A graduate of Western Michigan University, Woolpert had her own photography business in Kalamazoo in the mid-1990s but left town for 14 years, living in various places, including the East Coast and the Pacific Northwest, before returning in 2016.
“There is a real passion for the arts in this community,” she says. “My passion for art was developed on all of my travels, but it was born in Kalamazoo.”
There is an intentional motivation in much of Woolpert’s art to turn visual disability on its head and challenge the perceptions the sighted have of the non-sighted.
Scattered around her studio are works from her earlier Persistence of Vision project, which was the result of her time working as a volunteer with a tactile art class for blind artists in Seattle from 2012–13. Persistence of Vision comprises interactive installations and objects, photography and video that explore “how we visualize the unseen and navigate the unknown and reframe disability,” she says.
One creation includes a clay face self-portrait hand-sculpted by a blind woman who chose not to add the eyes. Another is a small “TV”: The front of the object is covered in black vinyl, with a cutout circle in the center, its “screen” full of snowy static. It’s how a blind man described his vision to Woolpert, she says.
Aiding the blind
Woolpert’s time in Seattle also led her to a side job as an audio describer for blind patrons at theater productions. She trained to be an audio describer in Seattle and is now using those skills at the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. An audio describer is a bit like a sports announcer who
describes a game’s plays; through a headset, theater patrons hear Woolpert describing the production in their left ear.
“I go to a technical or dress rehearsal to watch the performance and then watch a video of it at home to write a script that essentially describes what’s visual in the play that would be important to know. It could be costume props, action, facial expressions, gestures,” she explains. “You have to fit this verbal description between moments of dialogue. It can be really tricky.”
Summing up the work she does as a photographer, artist and audio describer, Woolpert says, “A lot of what I do is making the invisible visible, making a path to interact with what’s not seen.”