Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Panoramic Audiences

The "panorama," a wide all-encompassing view of a subject (usually a landscape or a battle), was a regular feature of urban popular culture for much of the 19th century. Panoramas were painted on wide and sometimes cylindrical canvases and some had mechanisms that allowed them to rotate, but all offered spectators the illusion of immersion in a scene. Once photography became more common in the late 19th century, more "realistic" panoramas of cities and national parks were created by placing several wide-angle shots side-by-side; by 1900, specially-designed panoramic cameras were used by professional photographers to depict large structures, geographical expanses, and groups of people.

Panoramic photographers seemed especially interested in the increasingly large audiences for political rallies, sporting events, and concerts at the turn of the century. A stadium or theater audience was difficult to reproduce with an ordinary camera, since it typically stretched beyond the viewing field. But the panoramic camera could capture the entire seating area of a hall or amphitheater (albeit with slight distortion). And by representing the whole of that audience from a fixed position, something that was not possible to the normal eye, the panorama artfully enhanced the audience's significance. Such photographs are an untapped resource for audience studies in terms of the detail they offer about performance spaces, as well as audience behavior, public decorum, and the vital role of spectators and listeners in American popular culture.

The Library of Congress has an excellent collection that is available online. A few samples of the photographs follow.

New Theatre, Chicago, 1906

President Wilson addressing Associated Ad Clubs, Independence Square, Philadelphia

Harvard-Dartmouth Game, 1903

Rubenstein Club, 1908

The next three are too big to depict properly, but the detail is amazing. You can find them here and here and here....

Squires-Burns Fight, 1907
Arbor Day 1908
President Taft, State Fair, Detroit, 1911

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