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Sunday, 4 July 2010


Four panoramic photographs taken in India

“I knew the wild riders and the vacant land were about to vanish forever … The more I looked, the more the panorama unfolded.”
Frederic Remington

 “The heavy bullock guns/ Sorry you can’t see the whole of the gun teams. Those with only six bullocks are (indecipherable)”

The panoramic cameras invented in the 1850s depended on two concepts paradoxical to photography. One was that in order to compress space perspective had to be excessively distorted, which was counter-intuitive to the premise that photographs should reflect reality. The other was in the process of compressing details to fit the frame photographers discovered that some of the most striking images looked almost empty. The landscape dominated by a vast sky looked much more impressive than a crowded streetscape. Panoramic cameras weren’t designed to record facts but space, which for the era was about as abstract and elusive as time. 

 “The cavalry just after the final charge/ 9th Lancers in middle”

Most 19th century panoramic cameras relied on a lens that rotated or scanned a field of vision from 120 to 150 degrees. Given the slow exposure times – anything from a few seconds to a few minutes – that the film plate was exposed, this made anything that moved faster than a stone almost impossible to photograph but also raised the metaphysical possibility that a person photographed at one side of the frame might have time to run behind the photographer to stand at the other side, so appear twice in the same shot and participate in a photograph that considered time and space in unison. Perhaps someone tried this idea; photographers were obliged to be highly imaginative, but for the most part panoramic cameras were used as tools for hard science rather than metaphysics.

 “Native infantry going passed (sic) in enactor(?) columns. 31st Punjabis are near side. That is a brother of Colonel Dennys on horseback. He is CO of 31st Punjabis”

These four panoramic photographs were taken at a military parade in India. The regiments named were all formed in the 1850s and the costumes of the Europeans suggest the 1880s. The Colonel Dennys referred to on the back of the third photograph may be the Lieutenant Colonel Charles Dennys mentioned in a register of British officers serving in India who was stationed in the Punjab between 1874 and 1882. Given the four photographs are fragile albumen prints that date range seems viable. It also fits with a technical innovation that would have made these photographs impossible to take a few years earlier. The dry plate process invented in 1871 and on the market by 1875 not only saved photographers the time involved in preparing plates, loading, exposing and then developing them, it also shortened exposure times, making a large tableau of people and animals in motion possible.  

 “16th Bengal Lancers Note Imayut (?) Khan on horseback just to the right of those two ladies in foreground”

What about the photographer? The inscriptions on the back of each print are personal; “Sorry you can’t see the whole of the gun teams”, but they also suggest the recipient was informed about the various regiments and military identities. Presumably the photographer served in the military; not only because he knows the regiments and particular officers but because the military frequently employed panoramic photography to survey terrain. The organic quality of the images, the way for example the troops on parade in the third photograph are framed in sharp perspective demonstrate he understood the panoramic camera well enough to exploit its virtues. That took technical expertise. Not only would he have to view the world through his camera as upside down and back to front but bowed out and in sharp distortion, almost a mathematical series of arcs and triangles.

Note: Photographic historian John Hannavy pointed out that these photographs appeared to be gelatine bromide prints, which were not produced in the 1870s. Further research revealed a W E B Dennys was the commanding officer of the 31st Punjabis between 1903 and 1907. 

detail from first photograph

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