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No. 844:
Panoramic Photography

Today, we see it all at once. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Easter Sunday the congregation gathers in a great semicircle around a camera whose lens is a vertical slit. We smile, and the photographer pulls the trigger. For 30 seconds the camera rotates right to left. In a few weeks, the huge wide photo appears on the wall, and we search hundreds of faces looking for our own.

Those panoramic photos are really a sidetrack in the history of photography. How often do you want to photograph 300 people?

One man did more with panoramas than any other. He was Eugene Goldbeck, born in 1891 in San Antonio. The photo bug bit him when, as a kid, he got a box camera. At the age of ten, he managed to dodge into a motorcade and photograph President McKinley.

Goldbeck took newspaper pictures during high school. In 1910 he spent the lordly sum of $200 on a panoramic camera. The film was 10 inches wide and 4 feet long. It cost over a dollar a shot to use.

By then the Army was uncrating its first new airplanes at Fort Sam Houston. And, in a remarkable four-foot photo, Goldbeck captured America's entire air power -- three fragile biplanes flying along over the tents below.

Commercial cameras had to be kept perfectly level. Goldbeck redesigned one in his shop so he could shoot downward. He invented new photo-finishing methods to handle the huge prints. He also learned to handle crowds. How do you pose a thousand people? How do you shoot a whole army division?

One picture stops me short. It's a thousand soldiers of the 7th Cavalry Brigade at Fort Knox with their tanks and vehicles. The array is a quarter mile wide, and the picture is wrong! The rows are straight. How could a camera see such a scene this way?

Goldbeck first drafted that scene in perspective. Then he moved people around so everything appears to be straight. It's as though you're seeing it from 10 miles away through a telephoto lens.

Goldbeck records the arrogant faces of the 1924 San Antonio Ku Klux Klan, the awkward bathing girls of Galveston in 1922, a five-foot photo of an American military cemetery in France. We see Machu Picchu, Mt. McKinley, and the Pyramids. We see it all at once. Our peripheral vision is made conscious.

I know this is only a small spur in the history of photography -- hardly worth talking about. Then I see a shot of Goldbeck, now an old man, dancing at the very top of a six-foot step ladder. He waves his arms over the camera like a snake charmer, choreographing some huge group. And suddenly I recognize him.

He is Edison, Einstein, and Emily Dickinson -- an inventive man doing one thing better than any of us has ever done, showing us what we would only have glimpsed -- out of the corner of one eye.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Burleson, C.W. and Hickman, E.J., The Panoramic Photography of Eugene O. Goldbeck. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

I am grateful to Margaret Culbertson, UH Art and Architecture Librarian, for suggesting the topic and for making the elegant Burleson/Hickman volume available for my use.