Rare Book Monthly
Book Catalogue Reviews - January - 2008 Issue
Panoramic Photography from Bernard J. Shapero Rare Books
By Michael Stillman
Recently received from Bernard J. Shapero Rare Books of London is a most unusual and fascinating new catalogue. When is the last time you received a catalogue that was less than five inches high and almost a foot long? More importantly, why would anyone print a catalogue in such an unusual shape? The answer lies in the type of material offered. The title is Vintage Photographic Panoramas 1850-1950. Offered is a collection of almost 100 panoramic photographs, far longer than they are high, thereby necessitating the unusual catalogue size to display them.
The photographs in this collection come from all over the world, and despite the more expansive date range, the great majority come from the second half of the 19th century. The catalogue is broken down to regional sections, featuring the following: Europe, Middle East, Central Asia, Indian Subcontinent, Far East, Africa, Americas, and Australasia.
Most of the photographs fall into two groups -- city scenes or scenic views (along with a few of ancient ruins). The city scenes depict a world hardly recognizable today, while the scenic views are essentially unchanged. Hong Kong has no skyscrapers, Paris does have its bright new Eiffel Tower, though the surroundings have changed, but Niagara Falls is still Niagara Falls (as long as you ignore the shoreline). Whether the views are different or unchanging, the common feature to these photographs is their beauty. The panoramas offer stunning views not obtainable within the confines of a normal photograph. Whole cities or mountains appear before us in one sweeping view.
As impressive as these pictures are today, they must have been absolutely stunning in their era. In the days before movie cameras and wide-angle lenses, the only way to produce such views was by lining up photographs side by side. Achieving the precise dimensions, equal lighting, and perfect matching to make this work is not easy. Some photographers allowed for a small gap between photos, making it far easier. Others match the edges seamlessly, but the separation between parts is noticeable through the different lighting. Then, some managed this art so perfectly that it is virtually impossible to tell where one photograph ended and the next began. That is the exception, but there are a few where the seam is almost impossible to spot.
The typical panorama runs two or three feet wide, though many far exceed this size. There is a view of Constantinople from 1870 that runs 123 inches long, and one of Shanghai from 1881 that is 132 inches long. Shapero notes that the awkward shape of these panoramas in part explains the rarity of finding them in superior condition. It is hard to store something ten feet long.