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History of Panoramic Photography

The panorama photograph has been around almost as long as photography. From the beginning photographers wanted to be able to show city scenes which could not be encompassed in a satisfactory way by one view from a normal camera. A photograph of the city skyline taken with a regular camera was generally too far away to show the detail in a meaningful way. Photographers started making panoramas by photographing the city skyline in a series of images which were then shown placed next to each other to create one image. There were many panoramic format prints produced from 1840 onwards including prints made by the calotype and daguerreotype process. Some views in the 1850s used as many as eleven full size (8 1/2" x 61/2") daguerreotype plates to create the scene. Later in the 1860s, panoramas were printed onto paper from large glass plate negatives which were sometimes as big as 20"x 24." One later master of the panoramic print was H.H. Bennett, who could print three or four 20" x 24" sized negatives onto an enormous sheet of paper with almost no indication of where the negative edges met. Bennett's photographs were of the scenery along the river in the Wisconsin Dells.

Specialized panoramic camera designs were being patented and manufactured for making panoramas from the ca. 1840s onwards. Since the negative was so long, a special camera was necessary to hold the film. There were two types of cameras for panoramas, one had a lens that rotated while the film remained still and the other had both rotating lens and rotating film. The earliest "true" photographic panoramas using a specialized rotating lens camera and a curved daguerreotype plate date from the 1840s. An Austrian patent exists from 1843 for such a camera, though no plates made from it are known to have survived. There are also 11 large panoramic daguerreotype plates of Paris still in existence that can be reliably attributed to Frederick Martens patented panoramic camera of 1845.

In 1899, Kodak introduced the #4 Kodak Panoram panoramic camera for amateur photographers. These photographs were about 12” long and had a field of view that was 180°. In 1904, the Cirkut camera was introduced. This camera was based on the principles that had been established in the 1840s. It became a popular format for commercial photographers and was used to make large group portraits and city scenes. It used large film that ranged from 5” to 16” wide and could be as long as 20 feet! Both the camera and the film rotated and the view could be as wide as 360°. This type of panorama however, produced a distorted the view of the scene. A street scene would have both sides of the street apparently placed parallel with the straight street appearing curved around in front. Panoramas made from a series of negatives placed together do not have this distortion.

Yazoo City
Flooding of Yazoo City, 5/13/27 from the Wesley L. Jones Album, Mississippi River Flood

This panorama is composed of separate images taken from the same viewpoint, and mounted together. Unlike images taken with a panoramic camera, the perspective in this image is not distorted. The scene appears much as it would if observed in person. This image is from an album of images documenting the memorable Mississippi flood of 1927. The prints were mounted on linen to allow viewing the panorama image as a whole.

Henderson motorcycle riders
1st Annual Picnic of Henderson motorcycle riders, Granite Falls, Washington, May 20, 1918

For this print by the Hopkins Co. it is likely that the photographer arranged the motorcyclists in an arc, to compensate for the distortion of the image by the Cirkut camera. In the resulting print, the cyclists appear posed in a straight line.

Reunion banquet
The Reunion banquet of the International Sourdoughs in Vancouver in 1948

Another small type of panoramic camera was the banquet camera which was named because of the popularity of its use for photographing groups at banquets. This camera which appeared on the scene in the 1910s, used a single negative usually 12”x 20” or 8” x 20.” It was used mainly for making group portraits because its wide negatives could produce images of a group with everyone in focus. This is an example of a typical banquet camera image, featuring a wide angles view of a large group of seated subjects.

Seattle looking north and east from the Seattle Electric Company plant on Post St., February 23, 1913

Digital imaging software can be used to "stitch" multiple images together to create a seamless appearance, such as in this wide view. Asahel Curtis created this panorama using 5 separate photographs. Modern technology allows us to present it as one image.

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