Extreme circumstances warrant extreme measures, and by measure, the most extreme in photography is the panorama.
Cheap, portable and simple in operation, with the added advantage of storing a number of panoramas on a film roll, we’ve seen in previous posts in this series how the Panoram camera was quickly taken up by innovative photographers for artistic purposes.
Even half a century after the release of this camera, it was being used by Josef Sudek for lyrical landscapes that demonstrate how a virtuoso photographer handles such a compositionally difficult format by incorporating and emphasising a series of motifs at strategic points across its broad span.
In 1948 friends gave him a Kodak No. 4 Panoram. Its coverage of almost 120 degrees makes it the equivalent on full-frame 35mm format of a moderate fisheye 11mm lens (the 1962 Nikon Fisheye was an 8mm f/8.0 covering 220º) but without the distorting compression at the edges.
Sudek had been devoting himself to documenting Prague, the city that was his passion, recording its appearance in atmospheric night shots and in a poetic, personal view of his garden through rain-streaked or fogged windows during the war.
The panorama presented him with an entirely new interpretation which was given new impetus when he was commissioned by Jan Řesáč to photograph Prague for a book that became one for which he is best known Praha panoramaticka (“Prague Panoramic”), with images made on his persistent peregrinations from the city centre to its outer limits, but which would not be published until 1959.
It is a master lesson in how to compose using a panoramic camera, which he did without a viewfinder, only the small prism on the Kodak camera which could be swivelled but only showed a third of the image at a time, requiring that the photographer synthesise the framing from only piecemeal glimpses.
Sudek’s photographs incidentally inspired the panoramic paintings of Cubist Emil Filla who welcomed Sudek to stay in a manor at České Středohoří in the Central uplands of Bohemia where they worked side-by-side. Not all is lyrical in Sudek’s panoramas however. His ‘sad landscapes’ emphasise their industrial degradation.
The Panoram was the size of a shoe box and produced images that were of a cumbersome format; so that it was used for photojournalistic purposes seems counterintuitive, but Sudek shows the potential. One mullock heap may be a sign of strip mining, but when in 1957 Sudek returned to the area north-west of Prague in the České Středohoří mountains, his all-encompassing views display the full, devastating effects of the bentonite mining activities, and of the coal company’s government-sanctioned demolition of the historical old town of Most to make room to expand brown coal mining in the area. The dust palls, chimney stacks against glowering smoke-laden skies, the lone figure and car interrupting barren perspectives of abandoned rail track, power poles and road are made mournful by a spreading garland of flowering weeds.
The personal protest and political intention in these images is clear; they decry wanton destruction of Bohemian history and landscape. It was a deeply-felt affront for Sudek, though he hid his evidence of it because the Communist government would brook no criticism of its industrial crimes. His Smutná krajina (Sad Landscape) was only published posthumously in 1999, after the fall of the Soviets. In Sudek’s own words “Documentary cannot be perceived simply as a message; it is also a parable.”
Four adventurers who took a Panoram with them on excursions of derring-do were Anthony Fiala, Alexander Iyas, Melvin Vaniman and Hiram Bingham, and each had different intentions for the photographs.
Anthony Fiala (1869-1950), under extraordinarily difficult conditions for photography documented the 1901 Baldwin Ziegler Expedition, and Ziegler Polar Expedition of 1903-5 that he led himself, in efforts to be the first to reach the North Pole. His images were taken with large format still cameras and the then new Kodak No. 1 Panoram camera.
More famously he produced the first cinematic documentary of the region, but his picture taken at 82ºN latitude was seen by a larger audience. It was first published in The Illustrated London News,which frequently used panoramic photographs across its layout, having found favour for the format amongst its readers since it published a wood-engraving of an elevated view of London and the River Thames in 1845, which continued to feature on its masthead.
The Finn, Alexander Ivanovitch Iyas, the Tsar’s consul in Persia 1901–1914, photographed the region, and on 26 February 1904 used the Panoram to photograph the arrival of the Carnegie Institute Expedition to Eastern Persia. He was shot and beheaded in an attack by Turkish troops on 29 December 1914 and by coincidence, at the battle of Sufyan, on a fallen Turkish officer were found Iyas’s negatives, which were sent to Iyas’s mother. In 1915 Vladimir Minorsky organised a small exhibition of his photographs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in St Petersburg. His work remained forgotten for a century.
The panoramic camera was used in the 1921 British reconnaissance of Mount Everest and by adventurers like American Melvin Vaniman, who in the September 1903 Sydney Morning Herald described his visit to Waimangu after the geyser killed four people. Famous for making panoramas from high vantage points, climbing ship’s masts and devising a tripod which would scale to a height of ten metres, so that in New Zealand Vaniman became known as the ‘Trapeze Photo Man’.
Not stopping at that altitude, in a visit to Australia Vaniman made what is believed to be the first aerial photograph made in this country; his only documented panorama of Sydney was made from a hot air balloon he imported from America. It shows Sydney Harbour from North Head to beyond Iron Cove Bridge. Vaniman’s intention was to exhibit his panoramas as massive enlargements in public buildings.
Amateur archaeologist Hiram Bingham III. Bingham, having first seen Macchu Picchu in 1911, for his 1912 expedition wrote to George Eastman, who was to supply his photographic equipment;
“…it would be extremely advisable to have one Panoram Kodak in the outfit … Can you give me some advice on this? … In many of the deep canyons where we are expecting to work, it needs a Panoram Kodak to show the opposite side of the mountain up to the top …. If you can give us three new 3A Specials, and one No. 4 Panoram we shall have nine Kodaks in the outfit and ought to be well equipped for the scientific work that lies ahead of us.”
Using the bulky Panoram camera for war photography would seem contrary, but in World War I, Ernest Brooks, son of a farm labourer, not enlisted to fight because he wore glasses, was the first official photographer appointed by the British military. Like Sudek, he uses the format to dramatic effect in conveying hideous destruction and desolation stretching all around him.
Though it was Charles Bean who controlled the distribution of Brooks’ photographs, and who condemned his ‘staging’ of pictures (as he did Frank Hurley‘s famous montage An episode after the Battle of Zonnebeke) it is likely that these (above) which appeared in the Illustrated London News are likely to be his. The only professional photographer to cover the Battle of the Somme from its outset, only determination to get publishable images and remarkable photographic capability has enabled him to assemble meaningful compositions in the prevailing chaos.
Canadian-born and also that army’s official war photographer, the photojournalist William Rider-Rider also used the Panoram No.4. for his work for the Daily Mirror which had hired him in 1910. Though it is difficult to source his panoramas, these two are a tribute to his photography at close quarters that conveys the scale and mercilessness of ‘total war’.
The professionals were not alone in finding in the panorama a means of depicting “the air loud with death” as Anglo-Jewish Isaac Rosenberg, who fought between 1915 and 1918, dying in the Battle of Arras on April fools Day, wrote in Dead Man’s Dump.
Kodak encouraged the ordinary soldier to take a pocket camera, and many did despite official restrictions against taking photographs and in rare instances some, like Dr Andrew Horne, a military doctor who served at Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, were prompted by the immensity and awe of the scenes before them to scan the scene with their camera and later try to reassemble it in an album.
Ivor Gurney, who was twice wounded, the second time by gas, and spent the rest of his short life suffering severe mental illness in institutions, describes the value, in the trenches, of Photographs in a poem of that title:
(To Two Scots Lads) Lying in dug-outs, joking idly, wearily; Watching the candle guttering in the draught; Hearing the great shells go high over us, eerily Singing; how often have I turned over, and laughed With pity and pride, photographs of all colours, All sizes, subjects: khaki brothers in France; Or mother's faces worn with countless dolours; Or girls whose eyes were challenging and must dance, Though in a picture only, a common cheap Ill-taken card; and children—frozen, some (Babies) waiting on Dicky-bird to peep Out of the handkerchief that is his home (But he's so shy!). And some with bright looks, calling Delight across the miles of land and sea, That not the dread of barrage suddenly falling Could quite blot out—not mud nor lethargy. Smiles and triumphant careless laughter. O The pain of them, wide Earth's most sacred things! Lying in dug-outs, hearing the great shells slow Sailing mile-high, the heart mounts higher and sings. But once—O why did he keep that bitter token Of a dead Love?—that boy, who, suddenly moved, Showed me, his eyes wet, his low talk broken, A girl who better had not been beloved.