Thoughts on Panoramas


General Photography

While working on my most recent Personal Favourites post, I spent some time thinking about photographic formats again - a topic that does not get a lot of attention and that typically only comes up in the (unfortunate) form of print sizes. Of course, size is just one aspect, the other one is the aspect ratio. Ignoring diptychs or spherical exposures, rectangular images are most common, with the two extremes (width and height equal [a square] and width much larger than height [a panorama]) being somewhat rare. The latter extreme, the panorama, seems most unusual, and of all the formats it might be the one hardest to work with.

Your option is either to use a camera that allows panoramic photos or to construct your panoramas from individual exposures. A good example for the former is provided by Luc Delahaye’s “History” images, for example his infamous photo of a dead Taliban soldier.

Talking about the latter, constructing panoramic images, is sure to get quite a few people ready to rant about how terrible (or great) Photoshop is. But then it’s quite worthwhile to talk about practitioners of this technique - not just because of their impressive work, but also to show (once more) how pointless discussions about Photoshop really are.

A fine example of constructed panoramic photos is provided by Barry Frydlender’s work. It’s quite instructive to see an annotated version of one of his photos (with explanations by the photographer) to see that these panoramas are in fact quite a bit more than just some technical exercise: “It took two months on the computer to complete. The credibility of the image as witness is damaged. What we’re calling a photograph is not a photograph. I didn’t take the picture - I constructed it.”

The image is not a witness - and it’s worthwhile to think about what it is and what it does. Clearly, while the documentary character (in part a myth anyway) has gone for good, something else has been added, a narrative if you will.

Another photographer who has been using this kind of technique is my friend Dylan Vitone, whose photos are composites of a bunch of individual shots, sometimes taken hours apart (with the difference being that Dylan doesn’t bother too much with the transitions between the individual sections). A photo like this one provides a good example for his work and style, this showing what Pittsburgh’s “Wall Street” looks like now (“Dream Street” no more!). Clearly, the panoramic format serves a purpose.

I’m sure there are more photographers who employ the panorama in this or in similar fashions. But regardless of who else is missing, I think it’s quite interesting to note how - just like in Gursky’s case - the format of a photo can be part of what the photo is intended to do.