Thursday, October 18, 2012

Vintage Panoramic Photos - Long and Lovely

Current obsession:  panoramic photos.
Some panoramic photos from my collection--the arrangement is a bit wonky because I keep adding to them!
The camera of the new iPhone 5 has a ‘panorama’ feature, but they are more than 100 years late to the party.  I’ve collected wide format photos for a while, but lately the quest for more has become a bit all-consuming.

Brooklyn Bridge, c. 1896, from the Library of Congress
These wide format photos, generally from the first half of the 20th century, depict everything from landscapes to baseball teams, bathing beauties, school portraits, dinner parties and any number of other gatherings.   Usually, they are big--sometimes called ‘yard-long’ photos--and though they were certainly made in other parts of the world, I like to think that they are particularly American in their attempt to capture the broad scope of the landscape and the people within it.
Top: Dogsledding on the Ziegler expedition to the North Pole, 1905  Bottom: The no-longer-extant Haleiwa Hotel, North shore of Oahu  Both from LOC.
First, the bad news about this blog post, and a cliche at that--the images I will put up of various panoramic photos really don’t do them justice.  They were printed in a large format for a reason.  The point of these large photos was to capture a large scene and allow your eye to slowly rove over the details.  Each face in the portrait or building in the city could be taken in and examined just as if you were there. 
Winter Bathing at Miami Beach, January 1921.  LOC.
A brief history:

Panoramas in the truest sense attempted to recreate an environment in 360 degrees.  Artists made the first efforts at large-scale paintings that depicted broad landscapes and battles. One such work is John Vanderlyn’s 1818 panorama of the Palace at Versailles, on view in the American Wing at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  With the advent of photography, depicting a sweeping landscape became possible by using multiple plates.  For instance, a series of daguerreotypes of Cincinnati was taken in 1848 and showed the skyline of the midwestern town through eight successive photographs.
No. 10 Cirkut camera.  The circular section at the top of the tripod rotates on a clockwork. 
Panoramic photography really took off with the advent of film and in 1905, the Cirkut camera.  The camera was patented by William J. Johnston of the Rochester Panoramic Camera Company, which was almost immediately purchased by a subsidiary of Eastman Kodak.  This tool for panoramic photography then became more widely available throughout the US and across the globe.
Central Photo Co. of Washington DC setting up a panoramic photo at the US Capitol.  The firm is still in business.  
The Cirkut camera changed the game by using a simple clockwork (like a wind-up toy) to rotate the camera at the same rate the film advanced, allowing for a longer, uninterrupted exposure.  The largest Cirkut camera could shoot negatives that were 16 inches high and the 18 foot length of film could be cut to any size (Photographic Apparatus for the Professional, c.1906, pp. 17-19).  Most photos I have are in the 2-3 foot length range, but some photos measured as long as five feet.
Land of Flowers dance, Florida, circa 1920.  LOC.
The best way I found to learn how a panoramic photo is made is to check out The Library of Congress website.  They have an amazing collection of panoramic photos, as well as videos that show how they were produced.  Check out the demonstration here.
Yale Varsity Crew and Substitutes, 1911.  LOC.
I have spent *hours* on the site--you can search their photos by subject, location and photographer.  I also recommend America by the Yard: Cirkut Camera Images from the Early Twentieth Century by Robert B. MacKay--it's a nice large format with lots of fold outs to give you a good sense of the images.
Detail from the Yale Crew photo
Group portraits are are my favorite type of panoramic photo.  I’m not exactly a ‘joiner’--group activities give me a bit of a twitch--but somehow the dynamics within these group portraits fascinate me.  I play The Breakfast Club game--who was the Princess, the Brain, the Jock?  Are they having fun at the gathering?  Was anyone misbehaving?  And the fashions from different eras are always fun to look at, too.  The shoes, the hair!
Tuckerton (NJ) High School class photo at Mount Vernon, 1926. From my personal collection.

Loving the men's fashions
Sullen teenager alert!  
One of the issues with panoramic photography is the distortion caused by the rotation of the camera--you can end up with that wonky fish-eye effect where straight lines appear drastically curved.  In group portraits, the trick is to arrange the people in the picture in a way that corrects the distortion.  Usually, the front row of people will be lined up in a curve that corresponds to the arc of the rotating camera.  On film, the people appear in straight lines--but when you look, you can see that there is often a pretty big gap between the people in the front row and the row behind them, especially at the ends.
Chi Psi fraternity boys at Williams College, 1963--a relatively late example.
I mainly buy group portraits taken at historic locations such as Mount Vernon or Niagara Falls.  I also like landscapes if they have something of particular interest to me (places I’ve been or would like to go, cute vignettes with people).  I like the military photos the least, because all I can think of is ‘how many of these young soldiers went off to war and died a horrible death?’  Not fun on my wall. 
Detail of photos from my collection--the beach scene at the lower right is Long Beach, California, circa 1920
On my wish list:  group portraits at Mount Rushmore, New York, Niagara Falls, Mount Vernon and other famous sites; beach or surfing scenes; and anything shot in Hawaii!

I’ll write a separate post about fun tricks found in panoramic photos…
From Decorology.
I sometimes have panoramic photos in my Etsy shop--come check them out here

© All text and images are copyright of Jeni Sandberg except where noted


  1. i have one on cd i would give you a mining camp up in Stehekin washington. My grandfather was the cook in the white hat

  2. How do I get copies made of a yardlong that I have? I want to give copies to my sisters..

    1. Hmmm, I've never tried to reproduce a panoramic photo. I might try somewhere that could scan the photo and reprint it in a large format (maybe try Kinko's and see if they have advice). You could also contact Central Photo Company in Washington DC ( and see if they have words of wisdom--they have been in the business of panoramic photos for many years! Good luck!

  3. I just acquired 44" long photo from 1947 of Hamilton airfield in California. Its military shot from a plane. Its longer than a yard, what's that called? Do you buy these pictures?