New York Panoramas

Marlborough Galley
April 2011

It was in 1975 at a photo-swap show that I discovered a 35 mm panoramic camera called a Widelux, made in Japan. Coming across that curious camera awakened memories of my father’s camera shop when I was a child growing up in Pendleton, Oregon, known for its rodeo, the Pendleton Roundup.

In 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression, my father, Jack Snelson, who owned and ran a laundry, decided to realize his dream of having a camera store, this despite the fact that most families in that small town could barely afford a box camera let alone the top brands Dad had in mind. He was a serious amateur photographer and in another life he probably would have become an artist. I was six years old then, my brother was nine.

At first the shop had only a few tiny Norton cameras made of Bakelite, priced at fifty cents. Within a year or two though dad had the best brands of the ‘30s: Leica, Contax, Graflex, Kodak, Keystone, Rolleiflex, Victor and Voigtlander. These magical names were to become a big part of my child’s world as well as my playground as I grew older. Dad always let me try out each new model with a roll of film. My brother’s talent worked best behind the counter, selling cameras. I was interested only in taking pictures, in developing and printing them in the darkroom. In a few short years the Snelsons became Pendleton’s photographers. Dad made pictures for the Roundup, even panoramas of pretty hokey covered-wagon scenes to celebrate the Old Oregon Trail. Though it was never the center of Mother’s world she was always happy to have me take a portrait of her prize roses.

This was of course very long ago but it was the lucky start for my long and great love of photographs and photography.

After various art schools I moved to New York and was soon supporting an expensive habit of making sculptures by working as a freelance movie cameraman mostly with the networks shooting documentaries. My filming years ended in 1966 with my first sculpture exhibition at Dwan Gallery on 57th Street.

The New York panoramas in my Marlborough Gallery exhibition are vintage prints, 1979 to 1994. Each image is really about my love of New York, an affair that goes back sixty years when I first moved to Manhattan in 1950. Seeing New York as it was 30 or so years ago in these pictures — Times Square in 1979, Wall Street in 1980 or Chambers and Greenwich Streets — it’s clear that great changes have happened to the face of the city. My aim wasn’t especially to make historical records yet all pictures become so as time passes. My primary interest in all of my panoramas is to discover an unexpected order in reconstructing the location and its geometry as if to transform an Earth globe into a cartographic projection; a new map of a known landscape.

On occasion I’ve returned to a city somewhere, to a spot where I’ve once made a picture, only to realize that the scene is hardly recognizable against the panorama I’ve grown used to looking at. Does that mean the camera lies as it changes straight architectural lines into arcs? No, the camera is telling the truth, but on its own terms, in its own transformative way. Standard cameras see in one gulp, with a wide-angle lens or with a longer lens that offers a telescope’s detail on a picture plane.

With a panoramic camera the lens scans in a circle, as one might survey the horizon with binoculars. The film sees just what the lens sees but through a narrow moving slit, much like peering through one’s hands held close together. The curving of architectural planes is faithful to the incremental shift in the view as the narrow slit does its scanning.

The history of panoramas and the camera goes back to the early years of the nineteenth century, to the invention of photography. See: wikipedia Panoramic photography

I made these New York cityscapes with my vintage 1917 sixteen inch “Cirkut” camera, one of the mere thirty that were ever made. It is huge, weighs eighty pounds and has a powerful spring motor that drives the rotating mechanism against a large gear on top of the tripod. I built a special modified front for the camera, a box extension that raises the lens to include more sky and higher buildings.

The negatives for these images are exactly the size of the prints themselves, in other words the prints you see are contact prints, meaning that in the darkroom process the sensitized unexposed paper is pressed in firm contact with the negative as light shines through it to make the exposure.

From the time I found and bought this unusual camera it was clear I’d need to reinvent or rediscover how to make the system work since few people still living had ever used or even seen a 16 inch Cirkut camera, big brother to the 10 inch Cirkut and its several lesser relatives. Besides the fact that it needed a set of missing special size brass drive gears for each different lens used and each different distance from the subject I learned that the film had to be ordered as a special “emulsion-run” from Eastman Kodak: a custom order requiring a greatly excessive number of square feet of the desired film type: This meant 20 rolls 16 inches wide by 100 feet long much more than I knew I would ever use. Also I would need an emulsion-run of printing paper 100 feet long by 20 inches wide. There were none of the necessary spools to hold film in the camera so I made those from scrap-spools from smaller formats.

After a lot of testing in 1979 I was ready to begin taking pictures that summer. As a seasoned New York bicyclist I saw that the most reasonable way to move about and search for possible locations was to transport my monster eighty-pound Cirkut camera on my bike. I designed a padded plywood rack on the back to tie the camera down plus hook eyes on the bottom and bungee cords to hold the tripod legs.

Knowing that the camera’s, slow one minute rotation made it impossible to freeze cars moving through the scene I decided the only reasonable time to go looking for locations was at dawn in the summer with the early light, especially on Sunday when there’s little traffic. It’s why Times Square in 1980 looks barren with shuttered storefronts. And, early morning or not, the busses still can unexpectedly cross the scene and appear in the picture like an unresolved blur of stretched out taffy.

In brief that is the way my large black-and-white Cirkut panoramas were made. Looking back I can say it was like big game fishing where I rarely came home with a catch to boast about. In this unusual photographic endeavor my success rate was especially low because of the many steps in which everything has to work perfectly or else that rare apparent lucky moment when the motor begins to rotate the camera ends up with nothing but a failed negative rolled up in the darkroom.

It’s clear that this kind of adventure should be taken up only by a somewhat mad person or, as I see myself, one who obsessively enjoys the challenge/gamble of making art where failure hazards sit waiting at each step. In this regard, Cirkut photography is the champion. So many failures to capture one picture that worked out right, a work to be satisfied with. It’s also clear that this antique technology with film and chemicals is becoming quickly extinct. It’s true as is often said, “If it were easy everybody would be doing it.” Well, I now have a panorama app on my iPhone but I can tell you it’s not quite the same.

Kenneth Snelson

New York Panoramas

Marlborough Gallery

March 30 – April 23, 2011