May 11: Wide

Date #11May 11: Timid photographers they, whose preferred optic is the telephoto; the stand-offish or shy, the anti-social, or the haughty.

By all means use it on timid subjects, such as birds, though they are most striking at beak’s-length. But give me a wide-angle lens, a Super-Angulon, a Distagon, a Skopagon, even a Fisheye, one that makes a picture into which I can climb, to peer around and into its corners; an image to be in, to let it entangle me in its weft, its warped curves the very fabric, the cloak, of a reality that the great photograph wraps about us, one that takes us in, where the photographer was.

I’ve been thinking more of the picture I’ve recently discussed here, of my own town; the 120-year-old Botanical Garden panorama by Robert Vere Scott, who spent his later career out in the seaspray of San Francisco Bay, photographing magnificent yachts, their billowing sails against equally swelling clouds. Though little really is yet known about his life, I felt he warranted a Wikipedia entry and set about writing it. The cameras he used too, Kodak’s Panoram models, dedicated to only the widest angles, 120º, 142º, are likewise worth writing about. One, the Kodak Cirkut, capable of even 360º, awaits its own entry in the online encyclopaedia; but such reference writing is prosaic, when really it is the poetry of panoptic perception that piques me.

Kodak, in advertising these cameras, attempts to convey the advantages of their panoramic camera:

“Takes marvellously realistic pictures of broad stretches of landscape and seascape, open spaces in cities, squares. etc. Large groups of people, reviews, regattas, etc.. are all most vividly recorded by the Panoram Kodak. When held vertically, most artistic panel pictures are obtainable, such as waterfalls, mountains. etc. Simplicity itself. Loaded and Unloaded in Daylight.”

…”broad stretches of landscape” indeed; this is a very different notion of wide-angle, and why? Because the camera rendered out-of-focus anything closer than 7 metres.

Not William Klein ‘gun in your face’ encounters, but city squares, the open sea, waters cascading into deep gorges and large crowds are its subject matter, but at a distance.

William Klein (1954) Gun 1, New York

Not so much wide, as broad, the panorama gathers visual intelligence, but also provides the viewer a privileged vantage point; purposes for which panoramic photography was in demand from photography’s earliest days and achieved first by Talbot and daguerreotypists by making a series of images and displaying them side-by-side.

Attributed to William Henry Fox Talbot ( 1846) The Reading Establishment, Salted paper prints from paper negatives, printing attributed to Nicolaas Henneman. Left image: 18.6 x 22.4 cm; right image: 18.1 × 22 cm; overall sheet: 19.9 × 49.1 cm. The Metropolitan Museum, New York, Gilman Collection, acquired 2005.

The means by which panoramas were obtained in one shot without the need for joining or montaging were as convoluted as they were ingenious. German engraver for Les Excursions daguerriennes, Friedrich Martens (1806-1885) settled in Paris in the 1830s, when he dropped the ‘von’ from his name, and was commissioned to take photographs on a French government expedition to the Alps in 1844.

Friedrich (von) Martens (1845-6) panoramic view of Paris from the Louvre, daguerreotype 

The next year he mounted the roof of the Louvre with his Megaskop-Kamera, a specially adapted daguerreotype camera with a lens rotated by a handle and gears which took in 150º views on curved copper plates 12 x 38cm, and which was later adapted to make paper negatives. The clarity of the image is due to an innovation adopted for most later panoramic cameras; a vertical narrow slit coupled to the lens which lets only the central rays act on the sensitive layer, and thus avoid superimposing the distortions from the edges of the lens image circle as it swept across the plate.

Friedrich von Martens (1806-1885) untitled panoramic view of the River Seine and the Louvre, albumen print, 34 cm x 57 cm
Frédéric Martens (c.1855) Le Louvre et les Tuileries (vue prise du Louvre), albumen print, 19 x 40 cm

Of course it would be nearly half a century before the his visual embrace of Paris could be published in half-tone. They were seen by a nevertheless enthusiastic audience only as engravings, a medium in which he was expert.

Panorama de Paris, pris des Hauteurs de Chaillot
FRÉDÉRIC MARTENS (1834-7) Panorama de Paris, pris des Hauteurs de Chaillot, after Jean-Philippe Schmidt. Handcoloured aquatint 35.7 x 104 cm 

That the desire (as Geoffrey Batchen would have it), for panoramic photography existed avant la lettre is evident in this engraving he made in the 1830s, and which was also printed with another to form a 360º view.

Frédéric Martens (c.1834-7) Panorama of Paris, panoramic view 360°, Paris, Handcoloured aquatint, 510×990 mm, printed caption. A rare intact complete printed sheet with both panoramic views after Jean-Philippe Schmidt, one from Chaillot (top of the page) and the other from the Notre-Dame bell towers, tête-bêche.

In the 1850s, abandoning daguerreotypes on curved metal or the wet plate collodion which also required the glass support to be semi-circular, Martens adopted the calotype process since the paper negative was flexible. He tried his new idea while photographing the Alps.

Having given up the daguerreotype for the calotype and in an effort to achieve the direct printing from metal plates of his photographs Martens wrote to Fox Talbot on the 5th September 1868, referring to his exhibition of albumen prints of architectural views at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, for which he received a Council Medal;

“Sir, A thousand pardons if I take the liberty of addressing the present to you. – At the Great Exhibition of 1851, I had the pleasure & honour of being introduced & at the same time you were kind enough to address a Letter… I am desirous of engraving on Steel by means of the Talbotype… Having consulted & examined with attention all the systems of engraving by light on metals, I have found that your basis of Bichromate of Potasse is without doubt the best…
It is a pity that the Mordant which you indicate (platinum) as the only one suitable is so high in price. Your kind advice will be very precious to me & most gratefully acknowledged. Pray accept the assurance of my highest esteem. Martens, Artiste”

Alas, much of Martens’ archive was burned during the Paris Commune.

This is the first of a three-part article on the phenomenon of the photographic panorama

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