Camera Arts Magazine

January / February 1982

Full Circle

Photographs by Kenneth Snelson

Text by Charles Hagen

For their shape alone, panoramas are both odd, and a little wonderful-the dachshunds of photography. Most of the cameras used to make panoramas seem a bit absurd, too. In some, lenses swivel around during an exposure, while in others, the whole camera twirls about on a tripod head, driven by a brightly buzzing motor. All that would be needed to complete the Rube Goldberg image would be for a little flag, brashly proclaiming “Click,” to pop out of the lens at the instant of exposure.

However curious they may appear, these cameras have a noble heritage. At the turn of the century, they were a common sight at significant social gatherings of all sorts-Fourth of July picnics, high school graduations, Elks dinners. Pictures made at these long-ago communal ceremonies still hang in small-town meeting halls and civic buildings throughout the country, testifying to a sense of community that today seems, sadly, lost.

In recent years, a number of art photographers have begun to make panorama photographs again, using antique cameras rescued from the dust of junk stores or exotic updated versions made by specialized companies. Much as other photographers have revived such once-popular printing, processes as those resulting in gum prints and platinotypes, so these new panoramists (whose ranks include Art Sinsabaugh, David Avison, and Jim Alinder) have adopted this format to new ends, exploring the potential of the panorama format to make pictures of interest to a contemporary audience.

Among these new panoramists is Kenneth Snelson, an internationally known sculptor who lives in Soho, a New York art district. Since 1975, Snelson has experimented with various ways of making panoramas; his pictures have been included in major survey exhibitions and are shown regularly at the Zabriskie Gallery in New York and Paris.

At first blush, it might seem a little odd that Snelson would ever have begun making panoramas in the first place. If he’d simply wanted to cash in on the wave of photo chic that has washed over the art world in recent years, he could have found a less taxing form of photography to pursue than making panoramas, which even many devotees of the medium still regard as arcane, if not gimmicky.

And Snelson’s reputation as an important contemporary sculptor is certainly secure. Born in Pendleton, Oregon, in 1927, Snelson studied in 1948-9 at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, the experimental institution that nurtured many members of America’s artistic avant-garde in the years after the Second World War. At Black Mountain, Snelson (with the encouragement of Buckminster Fuller, who taught at the school) first began to make the kind of objects that have since become his trademark. His sculpture, perched on the edge between art and engineering, is of a particularly distinctive sort: lengths of rigid tubing-almost invariably unpainted aluminum-are strung together in taut webs of metal cables to make geometric, crystalline forms that in many cases appear to defy gravity in their balanced play of thrusts and pulls.

Since the early 1960s, Snelson’s sculptural work has received extensive critical attention, and has been exhibited and purchased by museums throughout the world. Just this past summer, a major retrospective of his work-mostly sculpture, but including some of his panoramas as well-was mounted in Washington, D.C., at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. (The exhibit later traveled to Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery and to the University of Houston.)

Parallel to the structural investigation that he has pursued through his sculpture is the exploration that came out of another of Snelson’s interests: the possible forms that the structure of an atom might take. Around 1960, Snelson began a far-ranging program of research into both historical and contemporary atomic theories. As a result of his investigations, he produced a series of physical models to illustrate his own ideas about how the various components of atoms might fit together. He has gone so far as to take out two U.S. patents on “Models for Atomic Forms,” in 1966 and 1978, and he published “Portrait of an Atom” in 1976, a tract expounding his ideas on the subject. Snelson’s notions are viewed somewhat askance by most scientists; after all, Werner Heisenberg’s famous 11 uncertainty principle” implies that the structure of an atom can be determined only statistically- not precisely. Thus Snelson’s hypotheses can neither be proven nor disproven. However, this lack of professional acceptance of his ideas hasn’t deterred him.

In the context of such varied concerns, Snelson’s interest in panoramas doesn’t seem quite so incongruous. Looking at his panoramas with his other work in mind not only reveals other aspects of his photographs, but also helps to elucidate some of the characteristics of panoramas in general.

Unlike many pictures that are called panoramas simply because of their long, narrow shape, Snelson’s photographs are panoramas in a stricter sense: They depict space in a perspectively consistent manner, despite the fact that they include such a wide field of view. All the rotating lenses and revolving cameras and other pieces of arcane apparatus of various panorama systems-however charming they may seem-are designed to accomplish this basic end: to provide a picture that is perspectively correct.

The illusionistic accuracy of the spatial picture in panoramas of this kind can be demonstrated by joining the two ends of a panorama together. (This works only when the picture covers a full 360′ circle. The same illusion, however, can be obtained from panoramas that depict a smaller arc of vision, by curving the print the appropriate amount.) Looking at the picture from inside this cylinder, a viewer would see an image with correct perspective in every direction: Straight lines would appear to be straight, parallel lines going into the space of the picture would appear to converge in the distance; in all, the illusion of space would be surprisingly convincing.

The very first panoramas were of this wraparound kind, but on a much grander scale. These illusionistic environments first achieved wide popularity throughout Europe and the United States at the end of the 18th century. In them, painted scenes were hung in specially constructed cylindrical rooms. Spectators would stand in the dark centers of these rooms to look at the brightly lit pictures on the walls. The effect of these early panoramas was helped greatly by their large size. The first panorama in London opened in 1792; attached to a rotunda 16 feet high and 45 feet in diameter, it was a painting of the English fleet at anchor.

While permanent installations of this sort remained popular well into the 19th century, other panoramas (and the many imitations spawned by the popularity of the original) took a variety of forms. Often the panoramic views were presented as long, flat paintings, such as murals, or were mounted on rollers and unfurled across a stage, like scrolls. (The most famous example of this kind of panorama, a view of the banks of the Mississippi River, was reputed to be nearly two miles long.)

When photographers began producing panoramas soon after the invention of the medium, it was this flat form of presentation that they adopted-no doubt in large part because the physical limitations of the process ruled out any possibility of its being used otherwise. The earliest photographic panoramas-for example, Charles Fontayne and W.S. Porter’s majestic eight panel daguerreotype survey of Cincinnatti, made in 1848-did not offer the integrated spatial illusion that could be achieved with large painted panoramas. Only with the introduction of cameras that could scan across a scene during an exposure, with the lens or the camera itself revolving, could photographs provide a fully illusionistic, spatially unified vista that was more than simply a wide-angle shot. The best-known early example of this kind of camera was the Kodak Panoram, introduced in 1900, which used a revolving lens to expose an image into a curved film plane.

Even with the invention of cameras capable of producing true panoramas, the results were still usually displayed as flat prints. Instead of being enveloped in the seamless space of the cylindrical panoramas, a viewer was confronted with a picture remarkable more for its extent than for its spatial illusion. (As with other photographs, even flat panoramas can be seen in depth if they are looked at with one eye, from a distance determined by the length of the lens that was used to make the exposure and by the size of the print. For most panoramas, though, the ends of the picture will then lie outside the viewer’s field of vision.)

Like maps of the globe, these flat panoramas remain mathematically consistent and can be used to measure various elements in a scene, provided the details of the equipment and the procedure used to make the photographs are known. But, as in the anamorphic art popular in the 17th century, some elements in flat panoramas appear to be distorted: Straight lines that angle away from the camera, in particular, become curved when the curved image is stretched flat. (A related effect is the bulge that objects at the center of a 35-mm frame take on when they are photographed from up close with a wide-angle lens.)

Snelson’s pictures make use of this apparently distorted but nevertheless mathematically consistent space that is characteristic of flat panoramas. He finds virtually all of his subjects in cities, in scenes framed by the straight lines of streets and buildings. “I need something that shows that the picture is really an extraordinary view,” Snelson explained during a recent interview in his studio. Panoramas of natural landscapes, he argued, “would just look as though they’d been cropped out of the center of an 8 x lO.” But on the other hand, the stiff urban grid of horizontals and verticals that is imposed by the requirements of gravity bends and swells when it is translated into the unusual perspective of a panorama.

Snelson chooses the subjects for his panoramas “the same way you would for any kind of picture,” he said, “except that it has to include something of interest occurring in all directions.” To solve this central problem of panoramic composition-the need to fill, or rather, to make meaningful, all that space-Snelson often photographs in such urban nexuses as intersections, plazas, courtyards, and the like. In locations of this sort, streets, buildings, cars, and people all come together. In making some of his pictures, Snelson chose scenes with visual elements that would become formal events in the photographs, with patches of bright primary colors, for example, such as a red door or a yellow car; or with structural apertures of various sorts-doorways, windows, alleys-that he could use to frame passersby or to punctuate the rhythmic forms of the photograph.

In the flow and pacing of their elements, these photographs resemble strips of movie film, an interpretation that is given added credence by the fact that Snelson worked as a professional movie cameraman (he specialized in documentaries) for 15 years before he turned to sculpture full-time. The parallel between panoramas and movies is an obvious one to make-“pan,” the word used in film to describe a shot in which the camera rotates, is, of course, short for panorama. And setting up a panorama presents problems similar to those of composing a shot for film. “If you want a flow in movies.Snelson explained, “you say, ‘oh, I see-if I want to start on that and I want to end on this, what happens in between?’ You find that you wander, and you select as you go. This is akin to that process.”

Because of their huge size (many are more than a foot high and nearly ten feet long) and their calm classical quality, the black-and-white panoramas reproduced here are more sculptural than filmic. To make them, Snelson used a Cirkut camera, another model invented at the turn of the century, but one that Kodak hasn’t manufactured since the 1940s. In the Cirkut, a small spring-driven motor rotates the entire camera on a tripod head during an exposure, and simultaneously pulls the film in the same direction that the image moves, past a narrow slit inside the camera body. Because the rotation of the camera and the advance of the film are linked, a photographer can make panoramas of any size arc at all, even beyond 360′, in a single picture. The two movements are synchronized by a simple system of gears (“like a dollar watch,” as Snelson described it), which can be changed in order to make the camera turn faster (for wide-angle lenses, which take in more of the visual field) or more slowly (for telephotos).

The two Cirkut cameras used are physically imposing objects in themselves, one using 10-inch-wide film and the other 16-inch. While this large scale allows him to contact-print his pictures and still produce mammoth, somewhat awesome, prints, it has also forced him to devise his own equipment and methods for handling the material. He constructed special plastic rollers to use in developing the negatives and the paper (Kodak Azo, which he special-orders in 20-inch-wide rolls). He also built an elaborate contact printer, over ten feet long, for exposing the prints. A grid of light bulbs inside the contact printer serves as the light source; by using bulbs of different strengths and by interposing sheets of tissue paper between the light and the negative, Snelson is able to control the exposure in different parts of each print. “When you’re rotating a camera 360′,” he pointed out, “you’re looking first into the sun, then you’re in shadow, and so forth.” But with his homemade apparatus, he said, he is able to control to a large extent the extreme density range of his negatives.

Making a print with this setup is a demanding task. Every print is the equivalent in size of 20 8 x l0s, and it takes Snelson a full day just to make test prints of a negative. “The amount of failure that is required to get success in a thing like this is only possible if you’re a compulsive,” he noted wryly.

Snelson had to adapt his cameras, too, in order to “do what one ought to do to get a city image.” In most panorama cameras, he explained, the lens board is positioned in such a way that the horizon line in the picture falls at a certain height in the frame, usually about halfway up. “That’s why so many of my early pictures (done with a Widelux or Hulcherama camera) are in confined places, like rear courts in Paris, where something occurs top and bottom, and the horizon line is inconsequential,” Snelson pointed out. In the more open spaces of New York City, though, “if you can’t look up at buildings, there really isn’t a hell of a lot there,” he continued. Tilting the camera would merely make photographs with a roller coaster horizon. To solve the problem, Snelson devised a lens board that allows him to set his Goerz Dagor lens at any one of eight different heights relative to the film plane, and thus to control where the horizon will fall in his pictures.

However fascinating all this Mr. Fixit ingenuity might seem in itself, to Snelson it is simply necessary for making his pictures. His Cirkut views have a monumental quality appropriate to their subject. Rather than the intimate back alleys of Paris and elsewhere that he photographed with the Hulcherama and the Widelux, his Cirkut pictures depict New York’s blaring electric streets and monumental skylines.

Some objects, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, still appear distorted, because of the space-bending characteristic of panoramas. But in many pictures, the effect is subdued and in some cases seems almost an afterthought. Some cover less than a 360′ view and seem almost like murals. These huge cityscapes, with their minute detail and what Snelson calls “the one-to-one grain” of contact prints, appear to be chiseled in stone-tablets left for some future civilization, like Berenice Abbott’s views of New York in the 1930s. “I have the feeling that they’re kind of a picture-for-the-future of what the city was like,” Snelson said. The black-and-white materials, too, give the prints the classical solidity of 19th century city vistas.

The question remains: Why does Snelson do it? What is the source of his obvious obsession with panoramas? Why should a successful sculptor take up an obsolete process that requires so much effort and such expense, that leads to so many failures before a success is achieved? One clue is provided by Snelson’s background in film; another, as was suggested earlier, can be found in the nature of his sculpture.

Like spiderwebs, Snelson’s gossamer-seeming sculptures are, in fact, carefully engineered objects, made up of precisely measured tubes and cables. Moreover, Snelson usually assembles his crystalline modules in series, producing structures in which these geometric forms play off one another or repeat themselves across great expanses of space. The effect of these pieces is that of a musical score: a visual representation of a complex sensory pattern, with the tubes like notes and the cables like the ruled staff.

Snelson’s panoramas, too, are based on a mathematically regular system perspective that interacts with the geometry of the city. They, too, translate great sweeps of space into a contained form; they, too, unfold for a viewer across a span of time. It would be foolhardy (and probably pointless) to attempt to draw more precise correlations between these two sides of Snelson’s work, but the parallels are striking.

Snelson himself traces his fascination with panoramas to his childhood in Oregon. His father owned a camera store: “I remember there were all these cameras in a room,” he said. “That was the love of my childhood.” When new cameras would arrive-the latest Leica, say-the young boy would find himself enthralled by the precisely built machines. “Those were the things that turned me on as a kid,” he said; they were “tools you could do something wonderful with.”

Of all the various explanations offered for Snelson’s interest in panoramas, this last, with its psychological slant, is the most convincing. But no one reason seems sufficient in itself to explain the extent of his fascination with the format. Instead, all the possibilities seem to be aspects of a larger concern, an urge to make things in which space appears to be transferred in mathematically derived ways-an impulse that is expressed in the full range of Snelson’s ideals, interests, and personality.

Underlying all these explanations is an older desire, one shared by the culture as a whole: “It was a passion to try to take in everything at once in a picture,” Snelson said of his own efforts. This Faustian impulse to encompass the flux and detail of the world in a single view lies at the heart of all panoramas, as well as such other intensely illusionistic forms of photography as holography and stereography. In fact, that desire may be seen as the basic drive, the unstated goal, of the entire medium: to produce a grand catalog of the world, at every moment, and from every point of view. A dreamlike incident from Snelson’s childhood provides a final, telling clue: “I remember that, at a certain time when I was a child, we lived on a hill; there was a river below, and the whole city was laid out beyond. And I can remember sitting up on that hill as a four- or five-year- old, just looking at this whole thing.”

Charles Hagen is a New York photographer and critic. For nine years, he edited Afterimage, published by the Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, New York.