by Kenneth Snelson
Published by Aperture Foundation Inc., 1990
very photographer, in some part, is a voyeur lurking to intrude for a moment with his lens, then flee like a pirate with the prize of his latest trespass. Our curious need is to capture a piece of the world and sneak it back home.
But there are variations. I find when I’m at work with a camera I’m simply not satisfied with what is regarded as a normal window of an image. A fisheye view is okay but even a fish doesn’t see what is there just behind it. My urge is to encompass the surroundings, to possess the full 3600. It’s as if all the world should be included at once. It is a true voyeuristic instinct that whispers, “If you don’t happen to see it here in this place, it quite likely is over there, behind the door or at the other end of the wall.” All of this suggests there’s a darker meaning-with its roots in some lost early experience. Though that may be, the why is often not all that interesting. I would like, though, to go into how my romance with panoramas came about.
I can pinpoint the event that triggered this panoramic passion. It was at a Berlin flea market on an afternoon in March 1975. My wife and I and our child were living in Berlin, courtesy of a D.A.A.D. fellowship. While browsing over tables piled with wonderful junk my eye came across a box camera with the label “Zeiss Ikon.” Amazingly, though it was forty years old, this little jewel of a camera appeared new as if it had been sitting on a shelf all those years.
I paid a few marks for it and it was as if I had come home with a bright and shiny magic lamp. The genie emerged with memories, feelings, smells, and images of my father’s camera store in the thirties. If this charming Zeiss box had survived the years so perfectly, maybe the many other cameras, sparkling in the showcase at Dad’s store-Leica, Contax, Rollei, Plaubel
Makina, and Voigtlander-also were still around. The nostalgia for father’s camera world and the magic it had for me as a child began to fill my brain. I wanted to be close to that time and place again, to talk with my father as a grown-up. If I had the cameras of those days, it would be like finding myself in the Snelson Camera Shop once again.
The town where I grew up-Pendleton, in northeastern Oregon-is famed among rodeo followers for its Pendleton Round-up. There, my father owned the Troy Laundry and Dry Cleaners. Laundering had always been his trade, but photography was a lifelong love and cherished hobby. In 1934 when I was six probably the worst year of the depression-Jack Snelson decided that since he and a few others in town were photo hobbyists, and since there was no real camera store, he would open one himself.
At the beginning the shop was scaled for pocketbooks of those desperate years, with a start-up stock consisting of a dozen tiny Bakelite Norton cameras which sold for fifty cents each-including a roll of film. But three or four years later, by the time I grew old enough to take an interest, the store had a superb line of equipment. The slogan on the letterhead re(, “Everything Photographic.”
Around the shop I had love affairs with one camera after another and found ways to apply my young artistic talent, imitating the big name photographers in the magazines. After school and on weekends I set up tabletop miniature scenes, made montage compositions on the enlarging easel, learned how to burn in clouds (overly dramatized with deep infra red) to fill those parched, blank, eastern-Oregon skies.
One picture I made was a profound work in which I created a photographic apotheosis for a bronze equestrian statue-the only one in Pendleton of our own hero sheriff, Tillman Taylor, killed in the line of & decades before in a saloon shootout. Horse and rider, in my sentimental composite picture, were seen soaring skyward, hooves dissolving in a cascade of billowy clouds. I called the proud work “Til Taylor Going To Heaven.”
Sometimes I tried to mimic the grotesque allegories of that curious American surrealist photographer William Mortensen. His odd spiral-bound treatise called The Command to Look was the only instructive material I could find on pictorial composition.
Then there were Dad’s panoramic and Cirkut cameras. In those days, every town had at least one Cirkut photographer since the panoramic group-shot with all faces visible was a sure money maker. At a Shriner’s or Elk’s Club picnic or high school graduation, the camera could take in the entire flock. Simply by collecting a dollar-per-face, along with the list of names, a handsome day’s pay was assured.
Father used his panoramic camera to capture such events as John Hamley & Company’s yearly Christmas turkey presentation to its employees. I helped with the equipment and watched while Dad arranged his circle of thirty workers, each cradling a ribbon-wrapped bird. “Hold still and smile when the camera comes around,” he’d instruct as the bulky box began slowly to grind its way through a revolution. Miraculously, when the picture was finished, all of Hamley’s staff appeared to be placed in a perfectly straight line. Only Hamley’s storefront was curved. This kind of picture taking was magical, especially when Dad took our class photo and let two or three of us scurry around back to get into the picture twice.
I left Pendleton at the end of World War 11 for the navy, then to study art, painting, and sculpture in college. When I came to live in New York in the early fifties, I worked in film as a cinematographer. (As a cameraman, how many movie panoramas did I shoot in those fifteen years?) I felt proud indeed of having gone so far beyond Dad’s small-town camera world, yet the experience of childhood with cameras was always with me.
After our Berlin tour in 1975 1 bought my first (140′, 35mm) Widelux and began to work with it, joining three panoramic frames together to simulate the complete turn of its huge cousin, the Cirkut camera. The full-circle kick was on. I next sought out the few old-timers still around to learn from them how things used to be done. I discovered the master himself, E. 0. Goldbeck, in San Antonio, as well as Gabriel Allen, 90, retired, living in Florida. He had acquired all of Kodak’s remaining stock of parts when they stopped producing the cameras in the forties, so I was able to buy a rare, giant, 16″ model from Mr. Allen.
I completely rebuilt that big camera which, depending on the gearing and length of lens, rolls off ten or fifteen feet of film during a revolution. In order to get film I found it necessary to order a full emulsion run from Kodak in hundred-foot rolls. There was no printer around to accommodate a twelve foot-long negative so I built my own, a long wooden box with a pressure-plate top. With its fifty or so adjustable lights it looks like nothing so much as Dracula’s coffin illuminated by the Broadway Lighting Company. To make the sixty-pound outfit portable, I constructed a rack for a bicycle where I tied the camera, tripod and all. Because the lumbering machine has little capacity to stop action, I used to start out by bike each Sunday in summer at down when the fewest people are about and when traffic is quietest, to explore for broad expansive panoramas in the empty avenues of New York.
Finally, I found a smaller, lighter, efficient modern camera by Charles Hulcher of Hampton, Virginia. It is best designed for intimate urban places instead of the vast canyons of Manhattan, ideal to use in those worlds I love so much: the bridges, the canals, the gardens, the alleys, the small corners of Venice and Paris, as well as the temple gardens of Japan. Most of the images in this book were made with Mr. Hulcher’s remarkable camera. It is a compact electronic Cirkut device which completes a rotation with nine inches of 120 film. To use this genial instrument in place of the older goliaths is age appropriate for a photographer whose lower back is showing wear from too much lifting of large metal sculptures and ponderous panoramic cameras.