“As I traveled with my camera I came to realize that often one picture could not capture all of the emotion that had moved me to photograph. Many of the elements in the landscape that had created that emotion were outside the view of a single square picture. I needed a way to take it all in.
Constructing panoramic images from sequential frames allows the presentation of the landscape in a grand yet intimate style, without the jarring perspective usually associated with wide-angle imagery. In using a lens of normal focal length, a familiar context and perspective are created. Within that context, the language of light, surface, depth and texture can most effectively be expressed across a wide visual expanse.
What overwhelms me still is how small we are in relation to the landscape yet how much control we manage to exert over it. We create magnificent national parks to cherish the landscape yet we remove entire mountaintops, devastating the environment in search of energy, never realizing that we are part of the landscape and inseparable from it.”
Excerpt from a 2011 Artist’s Statement
In 1977, at the age of 20, I began my life in photography. On a whim, I enrolled in a night school class at a community college in Rochester, New York. I bought a Miranda 35mm camera and discovered a passion which has lasted my entire life. I am primarily self-taught. After that initial photo 101 class, I quit school and read everything I could find concerning the how and why of photography. I got a job at a local camera store and it wasn’t long before someone walked in with a Rolleiflex 2.8F camera to trade. The store decided not to buy it but I chased the gentleman out of the store and bought the camera on the spot. It was my first medium format camera. The seed of the next forty years was planted that evening in a busy parking lot.
I am often asked to describe the working method I employ to create my panoramic images. Before I begin, let me state that for display online, my panoramic images, unless otherwise noted, are scanned from the original silver gelatin prints made by me in my darkroom at Kelton Labs in New York City while I was a principle printer there between 1987 and 2010.
I spent my entire career as a professional photographic printer, working for fashion and fine art clients. For more than forty years, my own photographic work has been made primarily with either a Rolleflex 2.8E or 2.8F and occasionally with the Tele and Wide cameras. There have been other cameras of course but for the purpose of this article we’ll concentrate on my love the Rolleiflex twin lens cameras.
Most of my panoramic images were made with the newer version of the Rollei Panorama Head. This device must be used in conjunction with the Rolleifix quick release to be properly aligned with the rotational point of the camera and lens. From time to time I also use a Manfrotto 302 QTVR panoramic tripod head. All of my work is shot on Kodak Tri-X or T-max 400 film and developed in D76 1:1. For those who are not familiar with the Rolleiflex Panorama tripod head, this is a small device which fits between the bottom of the camera and the tripod. This device has ten click stops which roughly match the angle of view of the lens. The panorama head allows for a small amount of overlap on each frame which is needed to most accurately seam the images together.
Many of my images are comprised of five sequential frames. Five frames shot together using the Rolleiflex panorama head will yield a finished picture representing a 180º view. Learning to see in such a wide format takes some care and practice. This process in more akin to working with a large format camera and the contemplative approach that implies.
Once I have found a place I want to photograph, I find it helpful to first determine the ends of the scene I’m trying to compose. Small changes in the start point or end point will have implications for placing the breaks in the final image. It takes some time and patience to find the whole composition and to allow the details in each frame to find their proper place. Carefully planning the breaks in the image is where success or failure of the whole image is often determined. Here, Ansel Adams’ guidance in the concept of pre-visualization is most helpful.
Why have breaks in the image at all?
When I began working this way there was no digital technology, no stitching programs or smart phones with a panoramic mode. I knew from the beginning that I would never be able make the seams between frames disappear in a single final print. I realized that carefully planning where the breaks occur and presenting them as part of the whole allowed the viewer to more accurately see what I had as I made the pictures. These breaks tell the viewer that the image is a construction of sequential frames and hints at the process.
I would like to take just a moment to discuss exposure and development. In rendering light across a 180º view, careful attention must be paid to proper film exposure and development. The light will often change drastically from one end of the image to the other. Once chosen, the exposure for one frame must remain the same for all subsequent frames of that entire image. Changing the aperture from one frame to another changes the size of the image recorded on the film itself and ends the ability to maintain continuity across the entire image. Consistent film development is also critically important. Since only one exposure setting can be used for the entire image, careful metering and compensation in development should be used to achieve the longest tonal range possible. Since there are only twelve exposures on a roll of 120 film. I often shoot the same 180º scene twice on a single roll and keep careful notes as to what that roll contains and thoughts on lighting conditions and film development.
After choosing which negatives to print, my method is to print each image in sequential order and full frame, at least 10 X 10 inches. My habit is to make at least 5-7 prints of each frame. Once the prints are washed, dried and flattened, I create several complete sets of prints which best match in tone and contrast. After the sets are created I head back to the darkroom to tone each set in both Gold #231 and Selenium. These toners create a blue / magenta split on Kodak Ektalure paper. Like so many others, this paper is sadly no loner available, a victim of environmental regulation of products which contain cadmium. Occasionally, I use Kodak Polytoner alone to shift the colors to a red brown and blue split. Once the prints are again dried and flattened, I can begin to construct the final images in the mounting process.
To create the finished piece, I trim the overlap created by the Rollei pan head on each individual print. I also trim either the top or bottom of the frame to keep the images square. This has the desirable effect of slightly raising or lowering the horizon line of the entire composition. The prints are then dry mounted to acid free museum board or a black muslin fabric. Once mounted, I mat and frame the final constructions.
The image just above is a 180º view of Tolliver Creek in Western Maryland. For display online this image was scanned from the original negatives. The finished piece is the only copy of this image I ever printed and it is far too large to scan. The prints I framed were actually my proof prints. Of course I can print this again but the older papers I originally used are long discontinued. The over all matted and framed size of the above image is 20.5” X 58”. Making these images is a long and labor intensive process but one I truly love. I never let myself forget that the camera is a license to look at the world more closely.