The Caribbean at an arm's length
The stereoscopic 3D images of Puerto Rico produced and distributed between 1900-1910 by the Kansas-based photographic company Underwood & Underwood are notable visual documents of the first years of the American occupation of the archipelago. While these images rely on visual imperial discourses of 17th and 18th-Century travel books, sketches and paintings of the British West Indies, they reveal a shift in aesthetics and innovations in the representations of space, landscape, territory, and inhabitants. Understanding that Underwood & Underwood’s stereoviews of Puerto Rico operated as aesthetic objects and recognizing their cultural and historical specificity, I focus on how the company negotiated technological and artistic discourses of the time, endowing stereography a privileged space in the production of knowledge. I argue that Underwood & Underwood constructed a mode of vision which embodied progress and the modern scientific transformation of Puerto Rico’s natural world and people into available resources for the American empire. On the one hand, they marketed their products as “modern,” proclaiming not only new ways of seeing but also new ways of knowing. On the other hand, the tactile quality of the stereoscopic viewing experience opened the imaginative possibility of establishing virtual bodily presence in space—a specific quality of the medium that suggested to viewers that they were virtually inhabiting the scenes. Within the context of the nascent American empire, these images created an imagined sense of participation in America’s contested annexation: viewers of these Puerto Rican scenes act as both witnesses and supervisors in the process of colonization, and the stereoviews commodify the island’s people and nature even as they operate as commodities themselves.