Step back in time with Brewster

by Steve Watson in July 2014
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Art & design Travel

Brewster is a new type of travel magazine that journeys across time as well as space. Named after Sir David Brewster, the 19th-century scientist who invented the first portable 3D viewing device, the magazine comes bundled with a free pair of 3D glasses that allow readers to rediscover the thrill of Victorian adventure in its pages.

Made in Australia by Lauren Smith and Filip Bartkowiak, the pair begin each issue by unearthing vintage stereoscopic photographs of a single destination, which they then convert into red/blue 3D images and match with archive text to provide a fantastically immersive impression of a place and time.

It’s an ingenious concept, and one that throws up all sorts of questions around technology, art and business (the images and texts are all out of copyright – winner!) so I called Filip to find out how his time travelling adventures began.

Brewster magazine

I love Brewster – how did you first hit upon the idea for the magazine?
I work on an adventure travel magazine for my nine-to-five job, and around six months ago we were covering the Milford Trail [the stretch of New Zealand wilderness that is the subject of Brewster’s first issue]. The story was about the trail’s 125th anniversary, and I thought it would be nice to add in some historical images so I started trawling the New Zealand national archives and ended up finding these stereographs.

I’d had some experience with them before at university, and I knew straight away there was something that could be done with them. I played around with the idea of turning them into 3D images and as soon as Lauren saw them she was just as excited as me – there’s a real thrill in seeing something come to life like that.

I found five images pretty early on, so the question was, are there more that exist out there? We started delving further into it and Lauren came up with the idea of making a zine – because everybody makes a zine these days, right? She started researching historical texts that we could match to the images, and the whole thing became about curation.

She came across an essay that first appeared in 1908 called The Finest Walk in the World, written by Blanche Edith Baughan, and we’ve reproduced it with the stereographs. So then we asked ourselves where we go from here – could we do issues two and three? We’ve been trawling the archives for the last few months, and it turns out there are thousands and thousands of these images to choose from.

So the pictures came first. That’s interesting, because the text is so vivid – it really goes off the deep end about the colours and that enriches the images but it also makes you realise they’re just impressions, because of course you don’t get the colour in there.
They play really nicely off each other. It’s great to pair these things together and see how they interplay – the images give you that depth, but the text gives you the colour you can imagine.

And of course the images look great through the glasses, but actually they look really incredible without the glasses too. They’re sort of archaic and futuristic at the same time, with these odd technologies coming together that have never been very mainstream.
I do believe these pictures work in 2D and 3D and I’ve never thought one was better than the other – they just give you different things.

Brewster magazine

So how do you go about actually making them into 3D images?
I don’t know whether you’ve seen an original stereograph before, but essentially they’re taken with a twin-lens camera, with lenses that are approximately eye distance apart. So one lens gets slightly more left of an object, and the other gets slightly more right.

They come out as two square images next to each other on a card, and people would view them with a stereoscope, which is sort of like a set of binoculars, which you slide the card into to view the pictures.

I take those images, scan them into Photoshop, change the RGB channels and find an alignment point – there has to be something in alignment for the depth to work well. There’s a certain limit to it as well – if there’s something quite far in the foreground and a lot in the back you can’t focus on, you need to crop into the image a bit and try again. There’s a lot of trial and error.

Brewster magazine

It’s a brilliant project from that technological point of view, but I was reading the magazine and thinking that there could be a really strong political and environmental message as well. Is the Milford Trail still as pristine as it was 100 years ago? And if not, are you commenting on that?
There isn’t a direct intention for us to comment on the environmental thing – we’re more interested in going out and exploring and seeing what’s out there. My editor at the travel magazine has been to the Milford Trail and he says it’s quite similar to how it was back then, because it’s a national icon for New Zealand and the government makes a big effort to maintain it.

I was also struck by the fact that the text and pictures are over 100 years old, but the essay describes how Milford Sound was formed by glacial movement millions of years ago, and you realise that 100 years is kind of nothing!
That’s right, but it’s nice to be part of a process where you bring it full circle and keep it going, because people have been doing that forever and nothing is ever really new.

In terms of design certainly, everything is recycled and there’s a reference point for everything. I want to be able to bring things back that people have forgotten about – all these incredible images are out there and they’re not new, but they’re new to us because we haven’t seen them before. The knowledge that we’re helping a new audience to see them is really rewarding.

We also want to revive the print tradition a bit too. At work you hear that print is dying and the future is digital, and most brands today are content-driven, so it’s just a question of where they deploy that content across print, iPad, etc. But it would be hard to get the same experience with Brewster on an iPad or a computer screen – you need the print and the glasses, and it makes for quite a tangible physical experience.

I love it.
It’s great to see people responding to it and getting excited. I must have looked at maybe 2,000 images now and tested them out, and I still get a little thrill when I put my glasses on to figure out if an image works and how it can be fixed. I think that’s probably the thrill they had back in Victorian days as well, so it’s nice to experience something they had, but 100 years later.

The photographers would have been working by trial and error too, because they would have just shot it and hoped for the best, and wouldn’t have known whether a picture worked until they printed it and tested it. And that’s the same process we’re going through now, although today we’re doing our work in Photoshop and testing it with a different pair of glasses.

Brewster magazine

How many did you print for this first one?
We were quite conservative. I’m a bit of a dreamer and I was like, “Let’s print 15,000 and send them out them everywhere!” And Lauren was like, “…No”. We’re self-funding this, and it’s not that she isn’t a dreamer too, but she’s more pragmatic.

I come from the design and photography background and she comes from a publishing, marketing and text background, so our skills play off each other quite nicely. In the end we printed 500 copies of issue one, and I guess we’ll see where it goes from there.

Well I’m super excited about it. And it must be a good business model too, because presumably it’s all out of copyright?
It wasn’t that we sat down a year ago and brainstormed a way of getting rich out of a magazine. We work in publishing and we know it’s not going to be a gold mine for us, but this is something we like to do – we enjoy making products and seeing what happens from them. There are costs involved in printing and image libraries charge you for sending out images, but it’s not breaking the bank.

So where will Brewster go next?
We know Japan is going to be the next issue, and we want to vary our destinations as much as we can, so we’re hoping it will be the US, Italy and back to Australia if we can. But we’re led by what we can find, so at the moment it’s a matter of collecting as much as we can and narrowing it down from there.

Brewster magazine

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