Britain's Daily Mail introduces us to a fantastic digital archive of vintage city panoramas housed at the Library of Congress. About a quarter of the roughly four thousand images in the collection are devoted to cityscapes — incredibly wide sweeps of downtown areas trapped in time circa one hundred years ago. Good luck getting anything done this next hour. (For enlarged images, click through the call numbers below each image.)
Some of the images are stunning simply as classic looks at a familiar place. Others have clear historical value as glimpses into the ongoing process of urban development — like this series of panoramas of Duluth, Minnesota, from 1870 to 1913. Still others document cities at their most vulnerable points: Chicago during the great fire of 1871, for instance, or San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906.
The library began to gather panoramas around the turn of the 20th century as photographers sent in their work for copyright protection. Many of the wide urban shots made for postcards or advertisements for the tourism industry. Some are clearly taken from the tops of high hotels, while others climbed even higher on the backs of balloons or kites. Cities from all fifty American states are represented, with a sprinkling of major European cities, too.
The Daily Mail focuses on a wonderful subset of aerial shots taken by a photographer named George R. Lawrence, who operated under the slogan: "The Hitherto Impossible in Photography is Our Specialty." Initially, Lawrence himself floated hundreds of feet above a city in a cage attached to a balloon while taking his shots. But after miraculously surviving a surviving fall with the help of telephone wires, he invented a safer way.
He called this new device a "captive airship." A system of kites and strings suspended his 50-pound camera as high as 2,000 feet in the air. When Lawrence was ready, he triggered the shutter from the ground via an electrical current. The Daily Mail wonders if this work isn't the "world's first drone," though in a way Lawrence's vast shots also feel like an ancestor to the satellite images of Google Earth.
Haines Photo Co., 1915, "Panoram of Albuquerque, N. Mex.," courtesy Library of Congress (PAN US GEOG - New Mexico no. 2).
The library's earliest panoramas date back to the Civil War, when George Barnard took shots of terrain proved valuable to the Union Army. Mass-produced panoramic cameras were introduced in 1898, with Kodak releasing a popular one the following year. These early gadgets used a swing-lens technique to capture cityscapes, which amateurs enjoyed because it was easier than developing a series of shots side-by-side.
Of course the art of capturing the city from on high has advanced considerably. Today rooftoppers set up shop on skyscrapers, and some even animate their panoramas into time-lapse videos. Perhaps a broader awareness of the Library of Congress collection will inspire someone to continue the series of urban development shots by juxtaposing these vintage works with modern aerial views of the city.