New York

Kenneth Snelson

An aborigine, when shown a photograph of an elephant for the first time, can’t make heads or tails of it. We can, because after seeing millions of photographs, we’ve learned how to translate their flatness, limited scope and small scale and see in our mind’s eye the object photographed. Looking at Kenneth Snelson’s 360-degree panoramic photographs of Paris, I felt a little like that aborigine. The panoramic photograph is so unfamiliar that the mechanics of how one is made kept getting in the way of my really seeing it.

Snelson is best known for his amazing metal tubing and cable sculptures based on the principle of “tensegrity” (tension integrity) he discovered in 1948. But he has been making photographs for most of his life and traces his interest in photography to childhood and his father’s camera store. He shot the 12 panoramic photographs in this show in Paris in 1975. They’re of urban scenes: the courtyard of a house, street intersections, the platform and tracks of a Metro station—the best in the show, I thought—and other ordinary places. Each is composed of three shots, cropped and matched to create a single Cibachrome color print, either 4 by 30 inches or 6 by 44 inches.

The photographs are shot with a panorama camera. Set it on a tripod, press the shutter, and you’ve taken a photograph that encompasses 140 degrees. Turn the camera two notches on the tripod’s hexagonal nut, and take another 140-degree shot. Turn the camera another two notches, and take a third 140-degree shot. What you end up with is three shots which, after being cropped slightly on each end, can be matched perfectly to give a single photograph taking in all 360 degrees around the camera.

So far so good. If each of these 360-degree pictures were blown up and presented on the interior of a circular room, for instance, we’d have no trouble reading it, because the experience of seeing the photograph would be similar to the experience of seeing the actual scene: we’d be able to see only part of it at any one time and would have to turn around to see the rest.

But Snelson’s photographs, like most panoramic photographs, are presented flat, with the inevitable result that two objects at either ends of the picture appear to be far apart, when in actuality they were side by side. Also, because each photograph is composed of three shots, each has three viewpoints. This distortion of reality—this unfamiliar distortion of reality—is so engrossing that the viewer would have to become almost as familiar with the panoramic photograph as he is with the standard photograph before he could ignore its technology and treat it as something other than an oddity. The equipment really takes over, with the result that the technology becomes the content of the work, completely overwhelming any other content the photographs might have carried.

But so long as the panoramic photograph remains an oddity, it may offer us considerably more insight into how we see and how we compose a traditional picture than the straight photograph can any longer do. It suggests that we’re so used to a picture’s having a single viewpoint that we’re thrown for a loop when confronted by three. It also suggests that we’re so used to having the photographer select only a small part of the world around him that we have trouble assimilating all the information when the camera takes in everything, as Snelson’s does. The eye keeps jumping around looking for a place to rest. It doesn’t find it, particularly in the photographs of intersections, such as Place Gaillon, Paris, where the camera seems to be looking down four streets at the same time.

It’s worth noting that although the wondrous and marvelous equipment for making panoramic photographs has been around for more than 120 years, most photographers have avoided it. The reason may be that they’ve found it too wondrous and marvelous and prefer to work with more neutral equipment that allows them, rather than their camera, to assert their individuality. I can’t say that I found these photographs particularly successful; but they were more interesting than other photographs I’ve liked more. In fact, they were provocative precisely because of their shortcomings.

Jeffrey Keeffe