Today, we see it all at once. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Easter Sunday the
congregation gathers in a great semicircle around a
camera whose lens is a vertical slit. We smile, and
the photographer pulls the trigger. For 30 seconds
the camera rotates right to left. In a few weeks,
the huge wide photo appears on the wall, and we
search hundreds of faces looking for our own.
Those panoramic photos are really a sidetrack in
the history of photography. How often do you want
to photograph 300 people?
One man did more with panoramas than any other. He
was Eugene Goldbeck, born in 1891 in San Antonio.
The photo bug bit him when, as a kid, he got a box
camera. At the age of ten, he managed to dodge into
a motorcade and photograph President McKinley.
Goldbeck took newspaper pictures during high
school. In 1910 he spent the lordly sum of $200 on
a panoramic camera. The film was 10 inches wide and
4 feet long. It cost over a dollar a shot to use.
By then the Army was uncrating its first new
airplanes at Fort Sam Houston. And, in a remarkable
four-foot photo, Goldbeck captured America's entire
air power -- three fragile biplanes flying along
over the tents below.
Commercial cameras had to be kept perfectly level.
Goldbeck redesigned one in his shop so he could
shoot downward. He invented new photo-finishing
methods to handle the huge prints. He also learned
to handle crowds. How do you pose a thousand
people? How do you shoot a whole army division?
One picture stops me short. It's a thousand
soldiers of the 7th Cavalry Brigade at Fort Knox
with their tanks and vehicles. The array is a
quarter mile wide, and the picture is wrong! The
rows are straight. How could a camera see such a
scene this way?
Goldbeck first drafted that scene in perspective.
Then he moved people around so everything appears
to be straight. It's as though you're seeing it
from 10 miles away through a telephoto lens.
Goldbeck records the arrogant faces of the 1924 San
Antonio Ku Klux Klan, the awkward bathing girls of
Galveston in 1922, a five-foot photo of an American
military cemetery in France. We see Machu Picchu,
Mt. McKinley, and the Pyramids. We see it all at
once. Our peripheral vision is made conscious.
I know this is only a small spur in the history of
photography -- hardly worth talking about. Then I
see a shot of Goldbeck, now an old man, dancing at
the very top of a six-foot step ladder. He waves
his arms over the camera like a snake charmer,
choreographing some huge group. And suddenly I
He is Edison, Einstein, and Emily Dickinson -- an
inventive man doing one thing better than any of us
has ever done, showing us what we would only have
glimpsed -- out of the corner of one eye.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds