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Toy Story

by Rob Walker
Illustration by Leif Parsons
May 13, 2007
New York Times Magazine

Media forms come and go, and often this seems like a zero-sum game. New forms of communication pop up and others promptly become obsolete as a result: the killer app leaves a dead media trail. When a man named William Gruber created what became known as the View-Master in 1938, he had high hopes for it as a media format. After all, it took a place among the wonders of the 1939 World's Fair. "His original intention for the stereoscopic viewing device — he didn't even like the name View-Master — is that it would be an educational medium," says Annie Dubinsky, assistant director of the 3D Center of Art and Photography. Instead, it became a wildly popular children's toy.

The View-Master is still around and is not radically different from what it was decades ago. Each View-Master reel contains 14 pictures that, to the viewer, appear as seven stereoscopic images. Hold the plastic device up to your eyes and advance through the images by pressing a lever on the side. Many would see this decidedly low-tech artifact as nothing more than a mildly nostalgia-inducing bit of consumer kitsch. But a few years ago, a 29-year-old Portland artist who calls herself Vladimir saw something different: a potentially potent media form. Since then she has created a variety of multireel stories she calls Vladmasters, which she sells and presents in public performances. Presumably not even Gruber could have envisioned the results: Hundreds of people in a theater, simultaneously clicking their View-Masters as a soundtrack cues them to the next image in, for instance, a story called "Lucifugia Thigmotaxis."

Gruber was also from Portland, where there happens to be an exhibition called "The Magic of View-Master" at the 3D Center of Art and Photography through May 27. His projects included "Mushrooms in Their Natural Habitat," a huge, two-volume tome with a set of View-Master reels carefully documenting examples of the picturesque fungus. He hooked up with a company called Sawyer's, which produced scenic reels of the Grand Canyon and the like. Sawyer's later acquired the rights to Disney characters and in the 1960s was bought by another company that saw the children's market as the key to the device's future. Many of the displays at the 3D Center are the tableaus created by noted View-Master "sculptors," featuring the Flintstones and so on. Today the View-Master is in the National Toy Hall of Fame and is owned by the Mattel subsidiary Fisher-Price, which says more than 1.5 billion reels have been sold.

As a creator and shopper, Vladimir (who has apparently persuaded even her family to call her that name rather than Joanna Solmon, which she doesn't care for) had always favored the handmade or the thrift-store-found. These two preferences came together when she started making her own reels for secondhand View-Masters in 2003, starting by interpreting four of Franz Kafka's terse "parables." She read up on how to make 3-D phoographs, built her own scenes on a card table and glued the images into custom-printed reels. She packaged these in slim boxes of her own design and sold them at local craft fairs.

Then she wondered if maybe there was a place for the View-Master in the Portland Documentary and eXperimental Film Festival. "I was envisioning an installation," she says. Instead the organizer thought she should participate in the short films program. "So I had to turn it into morre of a narrative, timed piece," she continues. Enlisting musician friends for the soundtrack, she created a four-reel story about a cockroach named Stanley. The curious combination of the intensely private View-Master experience, carried on in a packed theater, was a revelation. "It was the first time that I heard 400 View-Masters clicking at the same time," she says.

Since then she has created more Vladmasters ("The Public Life of Jeremiah Barnes," "Actaeon at Home") and doen shows at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, a series of dates in England and most recently a three-city Midwestern swing. The home versions come with a mini-CD of the soundtrack (without the noise of 399 other clicking View-Masters of course) and sell ast stores like Cog and Pearl in Brooklyn and Reading Frenzy in Portland. She also sells them through her own Web site and on Etsy.com, the online emporium of handmade goods. In fact, Vladimir says the Internet, that most killer of apps, has been crucial to the Vladmaster catching on as an example of just how malleable media forms can be: what was meant as an educational tool and turned into a toy has emerged again with yet another life.