Queen guitarist Brian May rocks out with Victorian 3D photos

LONDON (AFP) - Queen guitarist Brian May on Monday launched an exhibition of Victorian 3D photographs from his own collection, united for the first time with the famous paintings they tried to recreate.

Stereoscopic cards were a British middle-class craze from the 1850s to the 1870s, with families and visitors gathering to marvel at the three-dimensional images, seen through a viewer.

Part of the frenzy was for 3D photos emulating the celebrated yet rarely-seen paintings of the day, cleverly staged for the camera using actors and props.

Triggered by childhood cereal box giveaways, May has held a lifelong passion for 3D photos, and his 100,000-strong collection of stereoscopes is one of the biggest in the world.

The exhibition at London's Tate Britain gallery, matching up 26 of the Victorian 3D photo recreations he owns with the original paintings, is a dream come true for guitar wizard May.

"This stuff, the very earliest, is full of the excitement of the newness of the medium," the 67-year-old rock star said. "I'm really thrilled. I hope people get a kick out of seeing this."

Just as two eyes produce three-dimensional vision, two pictures taken eye-width apart, when laid side by side and seen through a viewer, produce a 3D image.

At the Tate gallery, visitors can see the 3D photo re-creation, then look up and see the original artwork it was based on.

"When people look at the paintings, they go, 'oh, beautiful'. When they look through the stereoscope they go 'oh, wow!'," said May.

The exhibition coincides with a heavyweight book of these Victorian images, called The Poor Man's Picture Gallery, which May co-authored with French expert Denis Pellerin, a stereo photography historian.

"The whole point of this exhibition is to show people that stereoscopy is an art," Pellerin said. "In the 1850s and 1860s, people didn't have television, the Internet, video games, but they had stereoscopes."

The exhibition includes the 1856 painting The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis, showing the impoverished 17-year-old poet Thomas Chatterton laid out on a bed, having poisoned himself.

Next to it is photographer James Robinson's hand-tinted 1859 3D photo recreation - so uncannily similar, it ended up in court with a copyright claim.

Michael Burr's circa 1861 recreation of the same painting is even more strikingly accurate.

While penning thundering global hits like We Will Rock You, The Show Must Go On and Flash, May was quietly building up his vast archive of stereoscopic photographs.

The thrill of being transported into the 3D realm "never wears off", he said.

Freddie Mercury's band-mate is quite the polymath: besides the stadium-rocking music and his stereoscopy expertise, he hand-made his unique Red Special guitar from scratch and is a doctor of astrophysics.

"I love the Victorians. It's this unconscious fusion of art and science. Nobody was pigeon-holed in those days," May said. "Amazing things can be born from this mixture of the two halves of the brain."

He said 3D was currently hitting a peak thanks to 3D movies, but historically it "has had a cyclic growth in popularity - and then faded away every time".

The exhibition at the free-to-enter gallery runs until October 2015.