Kenneth Snelson: Panoramic Photographs

DeCordova and Dana Museum And Park, Lincoln, Massachusetts, November – January 1985

Taft Museum, Cinncinnati, Ohio, February – March 1985

Catalog Essay

By Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, Senior Curator

Kenneth Snelson is a man of many interests who became widely known in the mid 1960s for his sculptural work. He has also pursued research into the structure of the atom and created a visually-arresting group of panoramic photographs, the subject of this exhibition.

Snelson’s sculptures, which are based on the structural principles of tension and compression, are comprised of aluminum or stainless steel tubes connected by taut steel cables. The tubes by-pass each other without touching, seeming to float effortlessly in space in varying geometric configurations. The sculptures range in size from small indoor pieces that are three to four feet in a dimension to large outdoor works that may extend up to 100 feet. The artist’s first experiments with what has been called “floating compression structures,” resulted from his contact with architect Buckminster Fuller at Black Mountain College in North Carolina during the summers of 1948 and 1949. Snelson had initially studied painting and drawing at the Corcoran School of Art and the University of Oregon, and then enrolled at Black Mountain to study with former Bauhaus instructor Josef Albers. Encouraged by Fuller’s ideas of the geometry of structure, in 1948 Snelson experimented with sculpture and developed a prototype for a floating compression structure. He was credited by Fuller with inventing a new structural principle which Fuller later named tensegrity (a contraction of “tension” and “integrity”)

In the 1960s, Snelson’s investigations into the structure of the atom resulted in his first models of the atom, patented in 1966 and then again in 1978. His theories, drawings, and models of the atom were comprehensively presented in 1979 at the Maryland Science Center in Baltimore in an exhibition entitled, “Portrait of an Atom.”

That Snelson’s third main body of work is in the medium of photography is perhaps to be expected from a man who worked as a motion picture cameraman for fifteen years and who is the son of a camera shop owner. As a youth, Snelson occasionally accompanied his father to local businesses in Pendleton, Oregon, to take group portraits of employees. 3 They used a Cirkut camera which rotates on a tripod and could therefore encompass groups of people assembled in relatively narrow rooms. Snelson still has one of the panoramic cameras used by his father.

Snelson’s first experimentation with the panoramic format dates to 1951 when he was in Paris studying at Fernand Leger’s Academie Montmartre. Seven photographs taken in the Bois de Boulogne are pieced together to form a picture of boys playing in the park. Although the image is not a true panorama (each photograph was taken at a different time from a different vantage point), the strip format, emphasis on geometric pattern, and the push/pull of forms both close to and far away from the surface plane prefigure Snelson’s later panoramas. Snelson’s use of a scroll-like, horizontal format in BOIS DE BOULOGNE is related to his interest in Chinese art at the time.

Between 1952 and 1968, while working as a motion picture cameraman on documentary films, Snelson produced a different type of panorama. The term “pan” in filmmaking, short for panorama, describes the camera rotating to take in the scene. It was not until 1975, however, when Snelson and his family were in Berlin under the auspices of a Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst Fellowship, that his desire to experiment with photography was rekindled by an old box camera he found at a flea market. Nostalgia led him to try to re-experience his father’s shop” by attempting to acquire all the cameras his father had in the showcase of his store. With the purchase of a Widelux camera in 1975, Snelson initiated a series of color Cibachrome photographs taken in Paris.

Panoramas first appeared in painted form in 1787 when Robert Barker produced a circular painting of Edinburgh which was “arranged around the perimeter of a rotunda in such a way as to make the spectator feel in the midst of the scene.” 4 By 1822 Jacques Daguerre and his partner, the painter Charles Bouton, produced the Diorama, “a succession of scenes painted on a canvas which was caused to pass before the observer, or else the observer himself was slowly moved before the paintings.” 5 The subjects of these Dioramas were often great battles and historical events. By the 1840s the fever for painted panoramic views had developed in the United States, where depictions of far-off places and dramatic vistas were produced as mechanized painted panoramas revolving before a seated audience who simultaneously listened to an explanatory travelogue. 6 By the mid-nineteenth century photographers had created panoramas by combining multiple daguerreotypes in an overlapping horizontal format, using ordinary box cameras and moving the camera for each exposure in order to take in a 3600 field of vision. Famous views of the Ohio River and Cincinnati, Niagara Falls, the Rocky Mountains, and San Francisco during the days of the Gold Rush were taken at this time. Diana Eckins has pointed out that:

… the panoramic photograph differed from a painted panorama in its attention to contemporary events, though the nature of the subjects – battles and views of famous or exotic places – were often similar ‘ Also similar was the incredible labor involved in its execution. 7

In 1845, Friedrich von Martens, an engraver living in Paris, developed a camera which made it possible to take a 1500 daguerreotype view on a single plate. Considering that the human eye covers a field of vision of approximately 60′ and early daguerreotype cameras only 45′, this was an important breakthrough. The Eastman Kodak Company marketed a camera based on similar principles, the Kodak Panoram, in 1899. In this camera the lens moves in an arc in front of a curved film plane. Snelson has used modern versions of this type of panoramic camera, particularly the Widelux, to take 140′ views that are then pieced together to provide a complete circuit.

Another camera manufactured by Eastman was the Cirkut, invented at the turn of the century, but no longer on the market. The Cirkut has a small motor which rotates the entire camera on a tripod while the film is driven in the opposite direction past a slit at the same speed, enabling the photographer to take views of 360′ or more. Snelson’s large black and white prints of New York City are taken with the Cirkut camera, and he also uses a contemporary version called the Hulcherama.

Snelson approaches photography with an enthusiasm and a technical ingenuity that is characteristic of all he does. Just as his investigations into the physical properties of structure resulted in the development of the principle of tensegrity, so his desire to record a particular kind of space led him to modify the Cirkut camera. He found the horizon line of most panoramic cameras too low for his urban views of New York City, consequently he rebuilt the front of the Cirkut camera so that the lens board could be set at different heights relative to the film plane, enabling him to raise the horizon line. In order to process the large black and white negatives taken with a Cirkut camera, some of which are almost ten feet wide, Snelson built an elaborate contact printer.

What attracts people to the panorama? Snelson believes that “the instinct to check out everything around you is fairly primitive.” When asked to explain his motivation, he said, “the panoramas come out of a voyeuristic impulse, a desire to see in all directions at once.” 9 A 360′ panorama does provide a field of vision which is impossible to take in with the human eye in one glance. For the same reason that the mid-nineteenth century public was awestruck by the Diorama and other large painted and photographed panoramas, so the contemporary viewer is amazed by the amount of detail and depth of field available in a photographic panorama. While flat panoramas are mathematically consistent, straight lines that angle away from the camera become curved because the image is flat. This slight distortion adds to the fascination of the photograph, which evinces both abstracted space and realistic detail in an unusual combination.

It is significant that Snelson’s interest in painting peaked with Cubism. For his photographs provide, in their own way, a multiplicity of view that is indebted to Cubism, with numerous subjects contained in each panorama. According to Snelson, the order in the panoramas “is an attempt to find an on-going geometrical liveliness” and he is “not happy with them unless they work abstractly.” Yet he a;so sees beyond their abstract qualities to their function as documents of the contemporary city, as “…kind of a picture-for the-future of what the city was like.” 10

Cities, rather than natural landscape, appeal to Snelson as subject matter because they have more architectural and geometric elements, with their abundance of intersections, courtyards, bridges, and plazas. BROOKLYN BRIDGE, 1980, is very much a contrast of the arcing, dark, convex shape of the Brooklyn Bridge with the New York City skyline behind it in the right half of the image and a more open, tonal, distant view of the Manhattan Bridge on the left. Viewers are further confounded in their reading of these panoramas since the beginning and end of a flattened 360′ view are the same point. In the cibachrome prints, accents of color and an occasional human figure add to the number of elements that affect the visual reading of the image.

Snelson is not interested in photographing pure landscape because it does not offer the density of forms that he seeks. In a panorama of a natural landscape it is difficult if not impossible to tell whether what is represented is a true panorama or a cropped section of a large photograph. Even in the more rural photograph of MOHONK IN FOG, 1980, Snelson chose to concentrate on the forms of boathouses, canoes, benches, and docks rather than the lake. While human figures occasionally appear as accents, Snelson is generally not interested in photographing people. In order to be able to photograph in the cities of New York, Paris, and Venice without including people in the image, Snelson is out on the street by 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning. He has speculated that photographing Venice without people is a way to have Venice for himself and to provide the viewer with the same vicarious experience. There is, of course, a practical reason for not including people in photographs taken with the Cirkut camera. The camera takes 40 seconds to make its complete circuit, any moving people or cars would appear as a blur, an effect Snelson does not want.

Because of Snelson’s seemingly diverse interests, he has often been asked what the connection is between his photography and his other pursuits. He believes that his endeavors are related by an attempt to “chip the Plaster off surfaces of things and find out what the structure underneath is about.” The word “connection” is a key to understanding his work, for Snelson seeks “a universe of correspondences” arrived at through an investigation of the underlying principles of structure. If we look for more specific comparisons, the many views offered in his panoramas can be equated with the multiple views provided by his sculptures. And just as his structures of compression and tension and his models of the atom are concerned with the aesthetics and mechanics of structure, so too the panoramas, in their wealth of visual detail, reveal the underlying framework of the environment. The connecting of tubes and cables can be compared to the visual or physical connection of the two ends of the panorama to form a complete circle. The integrity of Snelson’s forms is essential, if a cable of one of the sculptures is cut, the structure would collapse,- similarly, if the center of a panorama were cut out we would be missing a vital connecting link. Thus, not only are Snelson’s varied interests fundamentally connected, but so is his approach to their execution and his ability to expand existing scientific and technical knowledge to meet his needs.

Rachel Rosenfield Lafo

Senior Curator