One of the things that has interested me for a number of years, and has recently re-emerged within my development images over the last few years is the panoramic frame. It is also something that I have become increasingly aware of within the recent work of my contextual sources.
I came to photography late, or at least what I considered to be late. It wasn’t until I had started my A levels that I first picked up a camera, this was through necessity of needing a skill for my bronze Duke of Edinburgh award. This doesn’t mean that I wasn’t interested in lens based imagery, up until the turning point during my only year of A level study, I had always wanted a career in the film or television industry, either in cinematography or special effects. Being a geeky teen that devoured every film he could, regardless of quality or age, I could extoll the virtues of a films aspect ratio. The best starting point for looking at aspect ratios is Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), which switches its frame size to accentuate the films multiple time frames and the standard ratio of the time.
I could talk about current conventions, a true anamorphic frame, 2.40:1 or 2.35:1 vs. a super 35mm frame 1.85:1.
After this point we get into the truly nerdy, Ben Hur’s (1959) aspect ratio of 2.93:1 shot on MGM’s camera 65 format,
or the real oddities of Polyvision 4.00:1 used for Napoleon (1927)
and Cinerama used for How The West Was Won (1962)
both used a 3 camera system that shot and then projected 3 images onto separate or curved screens to immerse the viewer in the image.
Perhaps the strangest aspect ratio ever seen on home video comes with the Blu-ray release of the classic 1962 Western How the West Was Won. The movie was photographed in the short-lived Cinerama format by a huge camera with three lenses. When displayed in a genuine Cinerama theatre, three projectors shone the movie onto an enormous curved screen that filled the viewers’ entire field of vision.
The effect is nearly impossible to reproduce on home video. Previous DVD and Laserdisc transfers crudely merged the three Cinerama segments into a single letterboxed image with join lines at the intersection of each panel. Due to registration and colouring errors, the sides of the picture often looked disconnected from the centre.
For the new Blu-ray release, Warner Home Video meticulously restored the movie by scanning each panel separately and digitally integrating them all back into one complete image. Warner has largely (though not entirely) removed the join lines, and the picture is vastly more consistent and satisfying in appearance.
As for the aspect ratio, Warner chose to include two very different transfers with the Blu-ray edition. Disc one contains a conventional letterboxed transfer with an ultra-wide 2.89:1 ratio. Disc two presents the movie in a brand-new process known as SmileBox. The process digitally bows the top and bottom of the film into a concave shape. SmileBox is intended to simulate the original experience of watching a Cinerama film on a 146-degree curved screen. From its highest point to its lowest, the SmileBox image measures 1.95:1, with dips in the center. According to David Strohmaier, director of the Cinerama Adventure documentary contained on the Blu-ray Disc, SmileBox was created with input from the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) and some top visual-effects talent in Los Angeles. The process was designed to re-create the viewpoint of a seat in the 12th to 14th rows of the Seattle Cinerama theater. Admittedly, it’s a unique- looking picture and may take some getting used to. But after a while, the curved effect can be quite compelling, especially when you watch it on a large home theater screen.
Of course, it’s not a perfect simulation. During the movie’s production, each of the three Cinerama camera lenses was angled in a different direction. The center lens aimed straight ahead, and the left and right lenses each aimed diagonally toward the opposite side. In theatrical exhibition, the three projectors (named Able, Baker, and Charlie) were arranged likewise. The leftmost Able projector shone onto the far right panel of the curved screen. Baker shone straight ahead, and Charlie (on the right) projected toward the left panel. Because of this unconventional process, both the flat letterbox and the SmileBox simulated curve have some degree of geometrical distortion, but in different ways. You can see this 9.5 minutes into the film when Jimmy Stewart paddles a canoe from screen left to screen right. When he hits the right-hand panel, the shape of the canoe seems to warp and bend away from the camera in the letterbox transfer. However, the boat moves in a fairly straight line in the SmileBox image. Elsewhere, a three-shot of characters at time code 2:26:07 looks normal in the letterbox version but is very oddly stretched in SmileBox. In the latter, Debbie Reynolds looks like she’s been flattened into a two- dimensional cutout and pasted onto the left side of the screen.
Each version has its own strengths and weaknesses. SmileBox doesn’t win everyone over. Former professional projectionist Vern Dias claims to have seen How the West Was Won in its original three-panel Cinerama more than 20 times. To him, “SmileBox approximates the view looking through the doors from the lobby or sitting in one of the rearmost rows of seats in the theater.” Dias says, “My favorite seat and the choice seat for full involvement in the action was to sit dead center in the row of seats that roughly lines up with the chord of the arc that the screen creates. This usually meant row 7 or 8 from the front but was dependent on the individual theater. This seat would closely correspond to the position of the camera when the movie was originally shot. When you sit in this sweet spot, you are located almost equidistant from all points of the screen, and the height at the center of the image does not appear to be significantly less than the height of the sides.” For the Blu-ray release, Dias prefers to watch the letterbox transfer on his front-projection screen.
To this, Strohmaier counters, “Every effort was made to do this SmileBox process correctly up to and including projecting 1962 historic three-panel Cinerama/MGM focus charts on the actual 146-degree Cinerama curved screens at the two existing Cinerama locations. This became the template for the SmileBox process. It was developed with very great care by people who knew and cared deeply for what they were doing.” In the end, the two aspect ratios for How the West Was Won come down to personal preference. Both are valid in their own ways. Thankfully, Warner provides both versions in the Blu-ray package.
Aspect Ratio Oddities, Sound and Vision (2009)
As a a photographer I tend to work in a 5:4 ratio, either with a large format camera or with a 6x7cm medium format camera, however I am increasingly driven to work with a wider image. In photography the main panoramic formats are 6x12cm or 6x17cm, along with the rarely used monster of 6x24cm. Many of my influences are second unit shots from motion pictures. Second unit shots invariably don’t contain any principle actors, whose time is expensive and therefore not to be wasted, they are usually “Pick-ups”. After the main unit has finished on a set or location, there may be shots that require some or all of this setting as background, but don’t require the principal actors. These shots might include things such as close-ups, inserts, cutaways, and establishing shots. To me these have always been the most interesting images and are an eloquent way to progress a story without the need for exposition. These are also the style of image that you will regularly see appearing in photographic narrative works.
My biggest panoramic influence in photography came while reading the History of the Photobook Vol 2 for the first time. Up until this point I had never come across the work of Josef Koudleka, in particular his Black Triangle, and Limestone books. Not only was I mesmerised by the beautiful black and white images but the striking wide format of his 6×17 camera
When working on several commissions in France, including playing a prominent role in the DATAR project,
the Czech Magnum member, Josef Koudelka, began to make photographs with a panoramic camera,
a tool that was particularly associated with his distinguished compatriot, Josek Sudek.
Koudelka took the lessons he learned in France with him when he returned to Czechoslovakia, and began to photograph the area known as The Black Triangle. Under the Communist government, where the extraction of coal and the production of electricity from coal fired power stations was an absolute state priority, this area became one of the most polluted in Europe.
In the foothills of the Ore Mountains, 75 million tonnes of coal from open cast mines were extracted annually… Koudelka’s panoramas show a devastated countryside, a war zone of blasted trees and vegetation, a landscape as atrophied and as wrecked as anything Paul Nash painted of the Somme… One might argue that Kouidelka is making beautiful images out of misery, and there is no denying that these are rich, dark-toned and sumptuous photographs. Koudelka is an unashamedly romantic artist, and has admitted that the region has a horrible beauty.
The History of the Photobook Vol 2, Gerry Badger & Martin Parr (2006)
Due to the cost of both of these books I know that the chances of me actually owning them is slim (even as obsessive purchaser of books I would find it impossible to justify the current £1000+ value of these books on the second hand market). I was however able to own a piece of Koudelka’s panoramic output with the release of Wall (2013) by Aperture. These images were taken along the security fence of the contested Israel/Palestine border. Comprising panoramic landscape photographs he made from 2008 to 2012 in East Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and in various Israeli settlements along the route of the barrier separating Israel and Palestine.
Whereas Israel calls it the “security fence,” Palestinians call it the “apartheid wall,” and groups like Human Rights Watch use the term “separation barrier,” the wall in Koudelka’s project is metaphorical in nature—focused on it as a human fissure in the natural landscape. Wall conveys the fraught relationships between humankind and nature and between closely related cultures.
The images aren’t flinching in their depiction of the wall, and act as a brutal reminder of the often forgotten realities of the on going conflict. They act as the perfect companion to Mark Thomas’ book Extreme Rambling: Walking Israel’s Separation Barrier. For Fun (2011).
I was first lead to Koudelka’s Wall by a tweet from Mark Power, who has also recently been experimenting with the panoramic image in a series of works, (I love) MARRAKECH (!), And POSTCARDS FROM AMERICA V: WISCONSIN, both (2013)
My own approach was led by my equipment, an (on-loan) Phase One back paired with an Alpa body. The camera allows two images to be made side-by-side which are then stitched together in Photoshop. Its resolution, two images of 80 megapixels each, enabled me to retain a discreet distance and, after a time, I seemed to become almost invisible.
In a city much over-photographed by tourists this method felt both sensible and appropriate, given the impossibility of being anything other than a tourist myself. I revelled in the beautiful, shambolic mess that is Marrakech, viewing the city as a stage, the play a series of scenes within scenes, pictures within pictures.
In a previous post I wrote about Toby Smith’s Lower Lea Valley images, taken from the series is a set of panoramic images that very much remind me of establishing shots from an Andrea Arnold or Lynne Ramsey film, full of a sense of loss and passing.
Another body of work I came across by accident is by Andreas Gronsky. Once in a blue moon Amazon recommendations throws up a book that is of interest to you and you don’t already own. In this case it was Gronsky’s Moscow Suburbs (2014). While I impatiently waited for it to turn up in the post I explored his website and came across an earlier body of work entitled Mountains and water (2011).
These instead of being taken with a panoramic roll film camera utilised taken two large format frames and presenting them as a diptych, it is the same as the method I used on The Smell of Bitumen (2007).
Many photographers use the same method to produce either a diptych (2 images) or a triptych (3 images). The advantage of using a large format camera is you can use the cameras movements to create a prospectively controlled image without the converging verticals and shifting vanishing points of rotating the camera to cover a wider frame.
While looking for examples of diptychs I came across a research project by Bowdoin College, a liberal art college (is there any other) in Maine USA. The project A River Lost and Found; The Androscoggin in Time and Place. Previously labelled as one of nation’s most polluted rivers, the Androscoggin River has slowly, if incompletely, recovered over time. Yet the river that allegedly inspired the 1972 Clean Water Act remains veiled in stereotype and ignored by the thousands who live along it.
“A River Lost and Found” explores the hidden past and neglected present of this important New England waterway. Our collaborative project combines photography, oral history, archival research, and non-fiction writing. Here we present a selection of our still-unfolding work. Together we ask how an injured river might reveal an ethic of place that embraces the complexities of human and natural history together. Our answers may suggest how we can embrace places that are neither pristine nor completely despoiled—the very places so many of us call home.
The images produced include a series of ambrotypes, either as diptychs or triptychs. While the methodology or subject matter aren’t identical to my work it is very interesting to see similar ideas being utilised.
For my image I have been using a 612 back on my large format camera, as it is the cheapest way I can produce panoramic images, and allows me to cover a range of formats with a single camera, while maintaining camera movements for perspective control.
One of the things that creating panoramic images on my DSLR has thrown up is how much framing influence I have absorbed from motion pictures, and one of my supervisors has asked if I intend to move into moving image. I am currently trying to develop my topographic image style into something less removed from the landscape. I have considered trying to produce topographic motion stills that mimic the large format image. By incorporating time, motion and sound into these moving stills (no camera movement) I hope for them to act as establishing shots to the wider narrative of the locales. I am currently hoping to purchase a Panasonic GH4 which will allow me to shoot ultra high definition images (four times the size of current High def TV) that can then be projected as diptychs, emulating the work on How The West Was Won, and partly inspired by David Hockney’s Wold video works from his Bigger Picture exhibition at the Royal Academy. This work utilised nine or eighteen digital cameras filming the landscape to create a moving ‘Hockney Joiner’.
We are watching 18 screens showing high-definition images captured by nine cameras. Each camera was set at a different angle, and many were set at different exposures. In some cases, the images were filmed a few seconds apart, so the viewer is looking, simultaneously, at two different points in time. The result is a moving collage, a sight that has never quite been seen before. But what the cameras are pointing at is so ordinary that most of us would drive past it with scarcely a glance.
At the moment, the 18 screens are showing a slow progression along a country road. We are looking at grasses, wildflowers, and plants at very close quarters and from slightly varying points of view. The nine screens on the right show, at a time delay, the images just seen on the left. The effect is a little like a medieval tapestry, or Jan van Eyck’s 15th-century painting of Paradise, but also somehow new. “A lot of people who were standing in the middle of the Garden of Eden wouldn’t know they were there,” Hockney says.
The multiple moving images have some properties entirely different from those of a projected film. A single screen directs your attention; you look where the camera was pointed. With multiple screens, you choose where to look. And the closer you move to each high-definition image, the more you see.
Hockney’s technology assistant, Jonathan Wilkinson, explains how this 21st-century medium works. “We use nine Canon 5D Mark II cameras on a rig we’ve made, mounted on a vehicle—either on the boot or on the side. Those are connected to nine monitors. I set it up initially, taking instructions from David, to block it in. At that point we decide the focal length and exposure of each camera. There are motorized heads with which we can pan and tilt, once we’ve got going, while we’re moving along. There’s a remote system he can operate from the car.”
The wild plants at the side of the road are only one subject. A number of other films chart the sequence of the seasons in the quiet corner of the English countryside where Hockney now spends much of his time. These too present a subject that is centuries old (the four seasons were a feature of medieval books of hours), but with a twist made possible by technology that became available only very recently.
They offer a lesson in the startling changes in vegetation, quality of light, and patterns of shadow that a few months will bring. The left-hand side will show, say, a progression down a country road in early spring, the right-hand side the same journey taken at exactly the same speed past the identical trees, fields, and bushes in high summer: the same, but utterly transformed. Because it is in practice impossible to drive at absolutely the same speed along a road in spring, summer, and winter, the precise synchronization of these sequences is achieved by editing. “Because we’ve done things at different times of the year,” as Wilkinson puts it, “we remap time to get them in the same place simultaneously in each film.”
“A lot of people have told me,” Hockney remarks, “that before they see these films they can’t imagine what nine cameras could do that one can’t. When they see them, they understand. It’s showing a lot more; there’s simply a lot more to see. It seems you can see almost more on these screens than if you were really there. Everything is in focus, so you’re looking at something very complicated but with incredible clarity.” In a way, this is a matter of multiplication: nine cameras see many times more than one.
Furthermore, Hockney believes that his multiscreen film collages are closer than conventional photography to the actual experience of human vision: “We’re forcing you to look, because you have to scan, and in doing so you notice all the different textures in each screen. These films are making a critique of the one-camera view of the world. The point is that one camera can’t show you that much.”
The deep depth of focus and resolution within Hockney’s multiple camera works is very reminiscent of the large format image, but is not something that is often currently found in cinema. The current trend is for limited depth of field and tighter shots, even though there is a huge history of deep focus within cinema, especially in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, exquisitely shot by Greg Toland.
When looking for other notable example I came across Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964).
Red Desert, set in an awesomely large dockside industrial area near Ravenna, proved that the director was as adventurous and revolutionary with colour as he had been with framing and composition. Shot after shot in this movie fires the mind and the senses, even if it’s some smokestack belching poisonous yellow smoke. See Landscapes of deliquescence in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, http://www.matthewgandy.org/datalive/downloadfiles/Gandy8.pdf
Below are some of my previous images, cropped into a 2.4:1 ratio to emulate second unit shots from an unmade film about Estuary England. I will be posting more recent panoramic images in the next few posts.