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Collection Panoramic Photographs

A Brief History of Panoramic Photography

Shortly after the invention of photography in 1839, the desire to show overviews of cities and landscapes prompted photographers to create panoramas. Early panoramas were made by placing two or more daguerreotype plates side-by-side. Daguerreotypes, the first commercially available photographic process, used silver- coated copper plates to produce highly detailed images.

San Francisco from Rincon Hill, 1851; c1910
Martin Behrman
gelatin silver print; 5.5 x 36 in.
PAN US GEOG - California, no. 235 (E size) P&P

This 1851 view of San Francisco was made with five daguerreotype plates. It is believed that the panorama initially had eleven plates, but the original daguerreotypes no longer exist. This image is a copy photograph submitted to the Library in 1910 for copyright protection.

[Nashville, Tenn., from Fort Negley looking northeast]; 1864 George Barnard albumen silver print; 11 x 28 in. PH - Barnard, G., no. 80 (E size) P&P

The Library's earliest vintage panoramas were taken by George Barnard for the Union Army during the Civil War. Military engineers and generals valued his panoramic overviews of terrain and fortifications.

View from the top of Lookout Mountain, Tenn., February, 1864 George Barnard albumen silver print; 10.5 x 42 in. PH - Barnard, G., no. 86 (F size) P&P

Barnard's panoramas were printed from two or more wet-plate glass negatives that were exposed in a conventional camera. The "wet-plates" had to be coated with an emulsion, sensitized, exposed, and developed in the field while the plates were still wet. After each exposure, the camera was rotated to the next section of the panorama to make a new negative.

Upon return to the studio, a print was made from each negative by placing a sensitized sheet of photographic paper on the emulsion side of the negative in a printing frame. The frame was placed in the sun until the prints achieved the desired density. The prints were then fixed, washed, trimmed, arranged, and mounted to form a panoramic photograph.

View of Madison, Ind.; c1866 Gorgas & Mulvey albumen silver print; 13.5 x 38 in. PAN US GEOG - Indiana, no. 19 (E size) P&P

Gorgas & Mulvey exposed four plates when shooting this panorama of Madison, Indiana. The separately mounted prints, made from the four plates, are visible in the finished panorama. The perspective is similar to that of another popular bird's-eye view technique known as panoramic maps.

Redlands, California. c1908 California Panorama Company gelatin silver print; 8 x 45 in. PAN US GEOG - California no. 224

In the late nineteenth century, cameras were manufactured specifically for producing panoramas. These cameras were either swing-lens cameras, where the lens rotated while the film remained stationary, or 360-degree rotation cameras, where both the camera and the film rotated.

Advertisement for the Al-Vista camera Advertisement for the Al-Vista camera
Reprinted from More Photographic Advertising From A to Z. Compiled by George Gilbert, 1972, Yesterday's Cameras.

The first mass-produced American panoramic camera, the Al-Vista, was introduced in 1898.

Reprinted from Camera Craft, San Francisco, 1900.

The following year Eastman Kodak introduced the #4 Kodak Panoram panoramic camera that proved popular with amateur photographers. In 1911 Sears, Roebuck & Co. sold the Conley Panoramic Camera through their catalog.

Mass-produced panoramic cameras worked on the swing-lens principle, used roll film, and did not need a tripod.

Mass-produced panoramic cameras made small panoramas, measuring no more than twelve inches long with a field of view of almost 180-degrees. Developing the film was easy, and the resulting negatives could be contact-printed or used for enlargements.

John A. Dick with Cirkut camera used for taking panoramic photographs. (Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library)

The Cirkut camera was patented in 1904. It used large format film, ranging in width from 5" to 16" and was capable of producing a 360-degree photograph measuring up to 20 feet long. Both the camera and the film rotated on a special tripod during the exposure.

Pan American flyers and ships; c1927 E.O. Goldbeck gelatin silver print; 9.5 x 53 in. PAN US MILITARY - Army, no. 231 (F size) P&P

Cirkut cameras were used mostly by commercial photographers to capture city views, group portraits, and special events.

Davenport, IA, 2nd & Harrison Sts.; c1907 F.J. Bandholtz gelatin silver print; 10 x 47 in. PAN US GEOG - Iowa, no. 48 (E size) P&P

Unlike conventional cameras, many panoramic cameras distort images. Distortion is most evident in street scenes where the camera is positioned at the intersection of two streets. In this panorama, the straight street, which is parallel with the camera, seems curved. Distortion occurs as the distance between the lens and the subject changes.

[Panoramic landscape along the Elbe]; between 1956 and 1960 Josef Sudek gelatin silver print; 2.5 x 5.5 in. PH - Sudek, J., no. 2 (A size) P&P

The Czech photographer Josef Sudek was a master of the Kodak Panoram Camera. He is renowned for his panoramas of Prague. Sudek made contact prints, not enlargements, of his negatives in order to show as much detail and tonal range as possible.

Beanfield; 1967. Oscar Bailey. gelatin silver print; 8 x 48 in. PH - Bailey, O., no. 4 (E size) P&P

The panoramic format continues to thrive. Contemporary photographers can choose between traditional panoramic cameras and highly engineered modern models.