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This Collection Comes from Another Dimension

The Record, Tuesday, August 24, 2004
by Scott Fallon, Staff Writer

Navigating Sheldon Aronowitz's two-bedroom apartment in Teaneck is similar to the scientists exploring the Amazon in the 3-D classic Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Danger can be found anywhere, from the pop-culture memorabilia piled precariously high against the walls, to the narrow aisles made from cardboard boxes heaped upon one another.

And while a green, amphibious monster is not going to jump out at you, there will be plenty of pictures and posters honoring the beast in those boxes you'll be tripping over.

Here on Lozier Place exists arguably the largest collection of 3-D images and souvenirs in the world.

Aronowitz has amassed 200,000 lenticulars (those multi-layered plastic images that seem animated), 50,000 View-Master reels, 1,000 View-Master viewers, 3,000 pop-up books, and 300 3-D cameras over the last 30 years. The collection is spread out in the 55-year-old social worker's apartment, four nearby garages, and his ex-wife's attic.

Yes, his obsession with 3-D helped end his 15-year marriage but did not sour the relationship. Aronowitz photographed his ex-wife's second wedding two years ago and gave her 12 View-Master reels of the ceremony and reception as a present.

"They both loved it," he said matter-of-factly on a recent afternoon. "We're still good friends. And she keeps a lot of my collection."

Aronowitz's uber-hobby is fairly unique, especially since the public's fascination with 3-D hit its peak a half-century ago.

But there are still loyal devotees. The National Stereoscopic Association boasts 3,000 members and has held an annual convention for more than two decades. IMAX films have helped revive interest in 3D in the last decade by showing movies on screens up to eight stories high. Among it all is Aronowitz, who is considered a bit of a celebrity in the 3D circuit.

"He knows what everybody has and what everybody has done," said Greg Dinkins, director of the New York Stereoscopic Society. "There are just a handful of people who know what he knows."

Aronowitz arrived on the scene about 15 years late. Three-D became very popular in the 1950s when Hollywood embraced the technology. Dozens of 3-D films were produced, including Hitchcock's revered Dial M for Murder.

But most were poorly made science fiction thrillers that didn't last long in theaters. Movie studios capitalized on the fad by churning out films as quickly as possible despite holes in the script and consistent B-level talent.

When Aronowitz graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University in 1971, he knew little about 3-D other than the flicks he had seen as a kid.

Aronowitz had trouble finding a job in social work and instead took portraits of newborns for an East Orange photo studio. While rummaging through one of the studio's closets one day, he found 25 3-D cameras.

"They said they were a fad in the Fifties and were just collecting dust," Aronowitz said.

He kept a couple of cameras and started shooting pictures of his family. Soon he was out at flea markets and antique shows every weekend scooping up anything and everything to do with 3-D.

His collection includes two-dimensional posters celebrating 3-D movies such as House of Wax. A centerpiece in his living room is a century-old Taxiphote - a device similar to a nickelodeon that views still 3-D pictures. He even has a toy-store rack of unopened View-Masters and reels of everything from Tweety Bird to Indiana Jones, Graceland, the Eiffel Tower, the space shuttle, and Tarzan.

Some reels that may be considered yawn-inducing such as Girl Scouts Serve Their Country or JFK Visits Ireland are worth hundreds of dollars. His most prized possession is an "All in the Family" television show reel, of which only one other is known to exist in the world. It's worth $1,000, Aronowitz said.

As he did throughout his 25 years as a caseworker and supervisor with the state Division of Youth and Family Services, Aronowitz still attempts to break the ice with troubled children by letting them borrow a View-Master at the Newark group home where he works. "It's a way to reach them," he said. "It seems to work more often than not."

Aronowitz also has made a side business with his 3-D photography.

He takes most of his pictures with two 35mm cameras he rigged together to shoot at the same time. He sends his film to View-Master, which mass-produces his photos on reels such as his work at Times Square on New Years Eve 1999.

"There's a lot of talk about the collector's versus the photographers," Dinkins said. "Sheldon is the greatest example of both. That's the influence of seeing a lot of good stuff and a lot of bad stuff."

In 2003, Aronowitz and a friend, Gary Schacker, were able to take 3-D photos of the 29 abandoned buildings on Ellis Island. It took 10 days to shoot the former hospitals and isolation wards that are barred from the public because of their decay.

The program won a first-place award at the National Stereoscopic Association in July.

"They took copious amounts of images and they're all gorgeous," said Diane Rulien, director of the 3-D Center of Art and Photography in Portland, Ore., which will showcase the Ellis Island photos in early 2005. "It has universal appeal. The show is very poignant because it switches from the old images to the ramshackle ones of today."

Remarkably, Aronowitz has not cataloged his collection. He claims he knows nearly every piece he has. "It may take me awhile to find it because I have to go through boxes, but I know I have it," he said.

"Is there a chance a guy in Arkansas in a hut has more? Possibly. But of all the known collectors, I know I have the largest collection."

Aronowitz was hit with bad news recently when he learned of the impending closure of the Fair Lawn Kodak plant. He had been getting his View-Master film developed there for years.

"I'm not sure what I'm going to do," he said. "There's no way I'm sending my film in the mail. I have to deliver it myself. It's too valuable."

3-D GLOSSARY:

The most basic 3-D image works when two identical flat images are viewed from two slightly different angles using a lens. The right eye sees the right image. The left eye sees the left image. The brain interprets the image from both eyes as depth. Below are some common 3-D terms:

Anaglyph glasses: The traditional cardboard red-and-blue lenses used to view black-and-white 3-D movies, comics, and images. The two images are printed on top of each other, but offset. To the naked eye, the image looks blurry, but when the glasses are worn the image is clear and has depth.

Hologram: A 3-D photographic image made with a reflected laser beam on film. It has a variety of uses including security measures on credit cards.

Lenticular: A multi-layered image merged into one layer with a special lens over the image. When moved in a particular direction, the image appears animated and three-dimensional. Used on everything from postcards to comic book covers to religious icons.

Polarized glasses: Used primarily at IMAX films and 3-D laser shows, these silver lenses are cut at a 45-degree angle to show depth in two- dimensional images.

Stereoscopic: Any 3-D format.

Stereo Realist: A very popular 3-D camera introduced in the late 1940s.

Sources: The Optometrists Network, Webster's New Riverside Dictionary, and Sheldon Aronowitz

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