Saturday, July 31, 2010


As contemporary photographers vie to create the largest digital image (the Dubai skyline and now Budapest), Jim Schaefer reminds us of the drama that played out in 1900 in his hometown of Alton, Illinois. The Chicago & Alton Railway had just built a special 8-car train to offer daytime service between Alton and St. Louis. Believing it to be the most handsome train in the world, director Mr. Charlton asked company photographer Mr. Lawrence about making an 8' photograph of it in its entirety. Lawrence explained that the photo would have to be made in sections and joined together during the printing process. Charlton was dissatisfied with this turn-of-the-century "stitching" technology, which would be neither seemless nor faithful to perspective. Instead, he gave the photographer carte blanche to develop the largest camera in the world to capture without flaws the faultless train. In 2 1/2 months, manufacturer J.A. Anderson of Chicago produced a mammoth camera (1st image) with the following specifications:

Size of glass negative: 8' x 4 1/2'
Length with bellows extended: 20'
Length with bellows folded: 3'
Weight: 1,400 lbs.
Number of operators: 15
Exposure time: 2 1/2 min.

On the day the train was photographed, the camera was hauled 6 miles to the middle of a field by horse-drawn van. Exposures were made using a telescopic, rectilinear lens with 10' of focus. Three prints were submitted to the Paris Exposition of 1900 and provoked such amazement that the photo (2nd image - be sure to click on it to enlarge it) was believed to be fake. Once it was authenticated, they awarded George Raymond Lawrence with the ‘Grand Prize of the World for Photographic Excellence.’

Schaefer, who teaches a course called "Looking at Photography" at Georgetown University, sees in both the past and the present a fascination with using the latest technology to create the biggest picture. But photography is not about superlatives - it's about conveying a vision. He quotes Shakespeare to remind us, "'The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King,' not the sets or the costuming or the size of the proscenium arch."

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