PRINT January 1978

Taking the Long View

AT THE SHOW THIS FALL at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, I found panoramic photography to be surprising, delightful, curious, informative and disturbing—until I came to the work of the late Czech photographer Josef Sudek. Then I began to take panorama seriously. Perhaps this isn’t really fair, though, for all panoramic photography seems serious in a way, or at least momentous, no matter who the photographer is. Despite its oddity, or maybe because of it, panorama might almost be thought the type of all photographies. It is a peculiarity of modern art that its most eccentric forms and innovations seems to express its central values. In classical art, with its ideals of harmony and symmetry, only classic work can set standards. But because modern tastes prize originality, novelty and uniqueness, the most suggestive works are often not the greatest masterpieces, but the impulsive and spontaneous gestures of the artist. I don’t think anyone would claim that Picasso’s collages are more important than Guernica, and yet collages seem to epitomize the imagination of modern painting, including Guernica, and of much modern sculpture. Their use of found objects, their fragmentariness and their direct conversion of objective reality into a subjective experience, into abstraction, make collages the model for the most profound work in traditional forms.

If panorama gives us similar insight into the whole medium of photography, however, that insight is of a less welcome sort and suggests photography’s limitations rather than its capacities. It reawakens old anxieties in photography’s admirers about the medium’s potential for art. It’s not that panoramic photographs aren’t pregnant with meaning; on the contrary, they seem almost too pregnant. They run off in ten different directions at once with philosophical and metaphysical implications we cannot control. Consider the example from 1857 by Robert MacPherson entitled Four Men in Front of St. Peter’s. Although it appears to have been made seamlessly, not as a series of overlapping views done by a plate camera with a conventional format, the “four men” evenly spaced in a line across the square in fact seem to be one man who has moved to new positions during four successive phases of the exposure. (Whether he is actually the same man seems something of a moot point, for at the very least the picture is intended to create the illusion that he is. Were such impressions a convention of panoramic photography? A picture done by the California Panoramic Company in 1908, also in the show, seems to have a single figure in two different panels as well.)

What MacPherson’s picture suggests is a fusion of time with space, a translation of the former into the latter which overcomes Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s restriction of all visual art to spatial relations alone. Of course, all panorama translates our vision this way by flattening out before us a landscape our perception must otherwise turn through time and space to take in. But the four men in MacPherson’s picture go glibly beyond this, extending the manipulation of time and space from the viewer’s movement to the subject’s and pointing toward what is in effect another form of panoramic photography: the motion studies done by Muybridge, Eakins and Marey. Muybridge did panoramas as well as his famous motion studies—a 360-degree view of San Francisco was in the Grey show—and must certainly have seen the two as related. In Marey’s case, too, the analogy seems appropriate because both the shape of his frame and the technology of his camera, which includes a slotted disc to suspend animation, are close to panorama.

MacPherson’s picture is, of course, only a sort of visual sleight-of-hand. But the point is that panorama does lend itself most readily to speculation, and to verification. From Beato in the 1860s to NASA’s Viking Lander 110 years later, panoramic photography is, like the motion studies by Muybridge and Marey, an instrument of science rather than a medium for art. The mathematical jigsaws from which the Viking panoramas of Mars are assembled may be a more esoteric composite than Beato’s linear, multi-frame pictures of China, but the principle—and more importantly, the purpose—is the same. The Viking pictures are “printed” by converting a computer code into a continuous gray scale. It’s a little like painting by numbers, and makes esthetic response just as absurd. Yet perhaps these Viking panoramas are photography’s most advanced state—a purely technological state—and perhaps esthetic response to any photograph is on the absurd side. Art deals with ambiguity as the fundamental human condition. Its purpose is to capture ambiguity, to locate the uncertainty in life and preserve its two-sidedness. The purpose of science is to eliminate ambiguity, which is what photographs have been doing from Muybridge’s studies of the horse in motion to NASA’s exploration of space.

The mechanical process of a panorama is so overwhelming that there seems little room to consider it as anything else. We sense the use of a mechanism whenever any of the three cameras specifically designed for panoramas—the “banquet,” “panoramic” and “Cirkut” cameras—have been employed. But this is especially true with the last two, both of which produce a single, continuous negative by the passage of a slit scanner across the scene photographed. Marvelous as the result is, it makes us wonder whether photography isn’t some kind of juggernaut sweeping all before it, including the photographer. This impression comes in part from the distortions of perspective which panorama causes. Like the wide-angle lens on a conventional camera, panoramic cameras make the middle of the picture balloon forward while the edges recede back. Correspondingly, the middle is spread out and occupies a disproportionate space while the edges are compressed. When the panoramic photographer gets up high enough and back far enough to have a clear field of vision in front of him, panorama’s distortions tend to enlarge the clearing into a desolation. The dominant spaces in panoramic photographs generally look vast and windy, like Red Square on a day when it doesn’t have a million people in it. We do feel as if a juggernaut has just passed by—indeed, as if the camera itself must be the juggernaut—because there is to these photographs a kind of emptiness which their own distortions enhance.

This is not to say that panoramas never have human figures in them. On the contrary, judging by the show at the Grey Gallery, people-scapes are, after landscapes, the most popular subjects. These are the pictures of crowds at sporting events, public gatherings and rallies, the regimental portraits and other group shots taken for the record, etc. But it is the landscapes which hold sway in my mind and which I identify with panorama in general. And in these the world appears as depopulated as that little village on the nether side of Keats’ Grecian urn. The occasional figure who does appear is so remote from the camera and so isolated by the curvature of space it creates that he is inevitably a melancholy figure. Depopulated, the world we see here is also dehumanized to a degree. Because we are acutely aware of the mechanism of the camera, it is a mechanistic world. Two photographs, which are reproduced one right after the other in the catalogue, are of the city of Pisa in the vicinity of the Leaning Tower and of an open-pit iron mine in Minnesota. In panoramic photographs these two places—one a city of high civilization, the other a black hole in the wilderness—look almost equally desolate and forlorn.

I don’t want to put too grim a face on panorama, for certainly we aren’t left feeling threatened or depressed by these pictures. The emptiness in them seems to correspond to the open, undeveloped quality of life at the historical moment, around the turn of the century, when panorama had its boom. This period just before the First World War was the last great moment of optimism and social innocence, and, at least in the American pictures, we recognize that panorama’s distortions only complement the dimensions which exist in reality itself. The streets really have been made inordinately wide and the buildings far apart as a sign of prosperity and to allow for the expected growth. This gives the pictures a feeling more of wistfulness and nostalgic regret—a pleasant, transient feeling—than of moroseness or depression. Nonetheless, the panoramic photograph exaggerates these historical conditions just enough to betray them, to turn spaciousness into emptiness. Again the warping of space seems to carry us over into a time warp as well, and to project, contrary to the expectations at the moment photographed, a certain bleakness in the future. Looked at in retrospect, these photographs do cast a pall over the times they celebrate.

Moreover, we have the uneasy feeling that the scan of the camera has swept aside the photographer along with everyone else. The mere photographic process is so visible, distinctive and invariable that there seems little chance left for the individuality of the photographer. In fact, the point of view in panoramic photographs is so divergent that they really seem to permit no point of view at all. Like the Hollywood spectaculars of the 1950s, panoramas are uncontrollable productions, and therefore anonymous ones. They take in everything—literally everything in the case of the “Cirkut” camera, with its 360-degree scan and its negatives up to ten feet long—and thereby suggest a medium which is ubiquitous but indiscriminate. The relentlessness of panoramic photographs, their capacity to exhaust their subjects, suggests that the whole medium of photography is perhaps destined only “to cover the earth,” like that up-ended can of paint in the logo of the Sherman-Williams company.

Then we come to the work of the one-armed Czech photographer Josef Sudek (1896–1976). The Grey exhibition showed only four of Sudek’s pictures, and at about 10 by 30 centimeters, they were among the smallest, least imposing works in the room. But I wasn’t surprised when Diana Edkins, the organizer of the Grey exhibition, told me it was with one of these Sudek pictures that her whole desire to do a panorama show began. The particular picture that had had this power over her was in fact the same one that suddenly forced me, when I came to it near the end of my tour of the exhibition, to reassess all the feelings I had had before. In the way that it masters the panoramic camera and bends its all-encompassing technology to art, this picture, which is called Dusk in Seminarska Garden, Prague, could stand for almost all of Sudek’s work.1

To begin with, Sudek held the distortions of the panoramic camera in check by either directly opposing or directly reinforcing them right in the middle of the frame, where they are strongest. In one picture, a narrow street running away from the camera in two-point perspective is almost zipped shut by the reverse pull of the lens drawing the houses that line it forward again toward the camera. In another, the double-back bend in a road protrudes radically into the center foreground as if it were an aneurysm in the landscape. In yet another (as in the one cited above from the Grey show) the borders of two paths in a garden converge in the middle of the frame with the force of an arrow let fly right at us. In most of Sudek’s pictures the camera distortions have thus been made into the substructure of the picture itself so that we are not aware of them as distortions. But Sudek was also, contrarily, willing sometimes to wrench our vision by aggravating the distortion. This happens in several pictures under bridges where one edge of the arch passes straight overhead while the other edge veers off in the background as if we were standing sideways to the span.

From this control over the distortions inherent in his camera, Sudek went on to other, subtler kinds of control. He developed a real ability to control where our eyes move in the picture. Consequently, his pictures don’t seem rambling and episodic like other panoramas. Our attentions don’t diverge as soon as they enter the picture, but converge, like those two pathways in the Seminarska Garden. Sudek used the vast emptiness of the panorama to put enormous pressure on some one, exceptional point in whatever landscape he was photographing. In the picture in the Seminarska Garden, it is the little sign on a pole just to one side of the convergence of the paths. Its puny arrow pointing up the hill, against the tide of the force lines in this picture, gives it a nearly heroic and comic presence. In the midst of a monolithic and darkling plane, to stand out, and even glow a little, as it does, is inevitably defiant. Its significance derives precisely from the fact that it is so slight a focal point for a panoramic photograph to have. Sudek’s insight was to realize that this is the only kind of focal point a panorama can have. The more scant and inadvertent the object is at the focal point, the better able it is against panorama’s grand scale to generate enough tension to hold the picture together.

By their nature panoramic photographs render their subjects monumental, and for the most part panorama has been used accordingly. Sudek’s sensibility ran heavily to the picturesque anyway—a trait even more prominent in his conventional-format studies where, typically, a garden is seen through a misted window—and many of his most striking panoramas are of the scenic beauties of Prague. Just as he was capable of reversing the polarities of the distortion in his panoramas, however, he was also capable of reversing the relationship between panorama and its subject. He could take this format, which is made to view the world from hilltops and be master of all it surveys, and he could bring it down to earth and accommodate it to the most ordinary, incidental landscapes. This is what the picture in the Seminarska Garden does, and what happens generally, I think, in Sudek’s best work. I suspect that Sudek often had to get away from the grandeurs of Prague before these other possibilities began to work on him. He had to get out in the suburbs or the country where there is, ostensibly, less to see. Then the influence of Atget took over, and he became a linking figure between Atget and Josef Koudelka. As his subjects became hard-bitten and commonplace, his vision became stringent and more powerful than ever.

There was other work in the Grey show more recent than Sudek’s which also looks promising, especially that by Art Sinsabaugh. A man now in his fifties who has taught for many years at the University of Illinois, Sinsabaugh has developed a “banquet” camera with an extraordinary ability to foreshorten space—to compress foreground and background evenly, as a telephoto lens does, rather than spreading them out. In some of his work that I have seen outside the Grey show, Sinsabaugh has used this technique to great effect, too, as a commentary on the urban landscape he photographs. Cars in an enormous parking lot, for instance, pack together as tightly as the cobblestones in a street, while in the airy distance, office buildings rise in a far freer, more open space.

Aside from some of Sinsabaugh’s work, however, I haven’t seen, either at the Grey show or elsewhere, other panoramic work I thought could approach Sudek’s. But there are several photographers besides Sinsabaugh—David Avison, Jerry Dantzic, et al.—now at work in this format. In her excellent introduction to the Grey show’s catalogue, Ms. Edkins speculates that there is this revival of interest in panorama because

The technical and esthetic challenges posed by panorama photograph in contrast to the simple procedures and instantaneous nature of working with such modern cameras as the Polaroid SX 70 seem to fascinate photographers like David Avison . . .

Whatever the reason may be, it is undoubtedly a benefit to all photography that such work is being done. While all panoramic photographs are fascinating, it is the work of these photographers which is most likely to do what Sudek’s does—to tell us something we want to hear about photography at large.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.



1. Fortunately, a much more complete record of Sudek’s panoramic work than the Grey show could include is available in Josef Sudek, Praha Panoramaticka, with an introduction by Jaroslav Seifert, Státní Nakladatelství Krásné Literatury, 1959.